Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Sea by John Banville








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I defy any reader to find a novel with more metaphors and similes per page than John Banville’s Man Booker Award winning novel, The Sea. Banville’s prose becomes rhythmic, like the sea, as first person narrator Max Mordon reflects on his life and grieves the death of his wife. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 52-57:


Down here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect, due to the salt in the air, perhaps, or the seaside climate in general. I do not recall notic­ing it when I was young and staying in the Field. It is dense and at the same time hollow. It took me a long while, nights and nights, to identify what it reminds me of. It is like the silence that I knew in the sickrooms of my childhood, when I would lie in a fever, cocooned under a hot, moist mound of blankets, with the emptiness squeezing in on my eardrums like the air in a bathysphere. Sickness in those days was a special place, a place apart, where no one else could enter, not the doctor with his shiver-inducing stethoscope or even my mother when she put her cool hand on my burning brow. It is a place like the place where I feel that I am now, miles from anywhere, and any­one. I think of the others in the house, Miss Vavasour, and the Colonel, asleep in their rooms, and then I think perhaps they are not asleep, but lying awake, like me, glooming gaunt-eyed into the lead-blue darkness. Perhaps the one is thinking of the other, for the Colonel has an idea of our chatelaine, I am con­vinced of it. She, however, laughs at him behind his back, not entirely without fondness, calling him Colonel Blunder, or Our Brave Soldier. Some mornings her eyes are red-rimmed as if she had been crying in the night. Does she blame herself for all that happened and grieve for it still? What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark.



It was at night especially that I thought about the Graces, as I lay in my narrow metal bed in the chalet under the open win­dow, hearing the monotonously repeated ragged collapse of waves down on the beach, the solitary cry of a sleepless seabird and, sometimes, the distant rattling of a corncrake, and the faint, jazzy moanings of the dance band in the Golf Hotel playing a last slow waltz, and my mother and father in the front room fighting, as they did when they thought I was asleep, going at each other in a grinding undertone, every night, every night, until at last one night my father left us, never to return. But that was in winter, and somewhere else, and years off still. To keep from trying to hear what they were saying I distracted myself by making up dramas in which I rescued Mrs. Grace from some great and general catastrophe, a shipwreck or a devastating storm, and sequestered her for safety in a cave, con­veniently dry and warm, where in moonlight—the liner had gone down by now, the storm had abated—I tenderly helped her out of her sopping swimsuit and wrapped a towel around her phosphorescent nudity, and we lay down and she leaned her head on my arm and touched my face in gratitude and sighed, and so we went to sleep together, she and I, lapped about by the vast soft summer night.

In those days I was greatly taken with the gods. I am not speaking of God, the capitalised one, but the gods in general. Or the idea of the gods, that is, the possibility of the gods. I was a keen reader and had a fair knowledge of the Greek myths, although the personages in them were hard to keep track of, so frequently did they transform themselves and so various were their adventures. Of them I had a necessarily stylised image— big, nearly naked plasticene figures all corded muscle and breasts like inverted tun-dishes—derived from the works of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo especially, reproductions of whose paintings I must have seen in a book, or a magazine, I who was always on the look-out for instances of bare flesh. It was of course the erotic exploits of these celestial beings that most took my fancy. The thought of all that tensed and tensely quivering naked flesh, untrammelled save by the marmoreal folds of a robe or a wisp of gauze for­tuitously placed—fortuitous, perhaps, but fully and frus­tratingly as protective of modesty as Rose’s beach towel or, indeed, Connie Grace’s swimsuit—glutted my inexperienced but already overheating imagination with reveries of love and love’s transgressions, all in the unvarying form of pursuit and capture and violent overmastering. Of the details of these skir­mishes in the golden dust of Greece I had scant grasp. I pic­tured the pump and shudder of tawny thighs from which pale loins shrink even as they surrender, and heard the moans of mingled ecstasy and sweet distress. The mechanics of the act, however, were beyond me. Once on my rambles along the thistled pathways of the Burrow, as that strip of scrubland between the seashore and the fields was called, I almost stum­bled over a couple lying in a shallow sandy pit making love under a raincoat. Their exertions had caused the coat to ride up, so that it covered their heads but not their tails—or per­haps they had arranged it that way, preferring to conceal their faces, so much more identifiable, after all, than behinds—and the sight of them there, the man’s flanks rhythmically busy in the upright wishbone of the woman’s lifted, wide-flung legs, made something swell and thicken in my throat, a blood-surge of alarm and thrilled revulsion. So this, I thought, or it was thought for me, so this is what they do.

Love among the big people. It was strange to picture them, to try to picture them, struggling together on their Olympian beds in the dark of night with only the stars to see them, grasp­ing and clasping, panting endearments, crying out for pleasure as if in pain. How did they justify these dark deeds to their daytime selves? That was something that puzzled me greatly. Why were they not ashamed? On Sunday morning, say, they arrive at church still tingling from Saturday night’s frolics. The priest greets them in the porch, they smile blamelessly, mum­bling innocuous words. The woman dips her fingertips in the font, mingling traces of tenacious love-juice with the holy water. Under their Sunday best their thighs chafe in remem­bered delight. They kneel, not minding the mournfully re­proachful gaze the statue of their Saviour fixes on them from the cross. After their midday Sunday dinner perhaps they will send the children out to play and retire to the sanctuary of their curtained bedroom and do it all over again, unaware of my mind’s bloodshot eye fixed on them unblinkingly. Yes, I was that kind of boy. Or better say, there is part of me still that is the kind of boy that I was then, A little brute, in other words, with a filthy mind. As if there were any other sort. We never grow up. I never did, anyway.

By day I loitered about Station Road hoping for a glimpse of Mrs. Grace. I would pass by the green metal gate, slowing to the pace of a somnambulist, and will her to walk out of the front door as her husband had walked out that day when I caught my first sight of him, but she kept stubbornly within, In desperation I would peer past the house to the clothesline in the garden, but all I saw was the children’s laundry, their shorts and socks and one or two items of Chloe’s uninterestingly skimpy underthings, and of course their father’s flaccid, grey­ish drawers, and once, even, his sand-bucket hat, pegged at a rakish angle. The only thing of Mrs. Grace’s I ever saw there was her black swimsuit, hanging by its shoulder straps, limp and scandalously empty, dry now and less like a sealskin than the pelt of a panther. I looked in at the windows, too, espe­cially the bedroom ones upstairs, and was rewarded one day— how my heart hammered!—by a glimpse behind a shadowed pane of what seemed a nude thigh that could only be hers.

Then the adored flesh moved and turned into the hairy shoul­der of her husband, at stool, for all I knew, and reaching for the lavatory roll.

There was a day when the door did open, but it was Rose who came out, and gave me a look that made me lower my eyes and hurry on. Yes, Rose had the measure of me from the start, Still has, no doubt.

I determined to get into the house, to walk where Mrs. Grace walked, sit where she sat, touch the things that she touched. To this end I set about making the acquaintance of Chloe and her brother. It was easy, as these things were in childhood, even for a child as circumspect as I was. At that age we had no small-talk, no rituals of polite advance and encounter, but simply put ourselves into each other’s vicinity and waited to see what would happen. I saw the two of them loitering on the gravel outside the Strand Café one day, spied them before they spied me, and crossed the road diagonally to where they were standing, and stopped. Myles was eating an ice cream with deep concentration, licking it evenly on all sides like a cat licking a kitten, while Chloe, I suppose having fin­ished hers, waited on him in an attitude of torpid boredom, leaning in the doorway of the café with one sandalled foot pressed on the instep of the other and her face blankly lifted to the sunlight. I did not say anything, nor did they. The three of us just stood there in the morning sunshine amid smells of sea­wrack and vanilla and what passed in the Strand Café for cof­fee, and at last Chloe deigned to lower her head and directed her gaze toward my knees and asked my name, When I told her she repeated it, as if it were a suspect coin she was testing between her teeth.


Many readers will be enjoyably captivated by the prose of The Sea, while others will want release from that captivity. If you enjoyed the excerpt, you’ll like the rest.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2006 issue of Executive Times


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