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The Sea

The Sea

3.9 54
by John Banville

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In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom


In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Remarkable. . . . The power and strangeness and piercing beauty of [The Sea is] a wonder.”
The Washington Post Book World

“With his fastidious wit and exquisite style, John Banville is the heir to Nabokov. . . . The Sea [is] his best novel so far.”–The Sunday Telegraph

The Sea offers an extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory. . . . Undeniably brilliant.” –USA Today

“A gem. . . . [The sea]is a presence on every page, its ceaseless undulations echoing constantly in the cadences of the prose. This novel shouldn't simply be read. It needs to be heard, for its sound is intoxicating. . . . A winning work of art.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

John Crowley
Banville's achievement seems remarkable to me. Banville appears to be fining down his writing to the central impulse of all his mature work, which he stated long ago in the extravagant Gothic tale Birchwood : "We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. The first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in the darkened room, the end of love is forever two cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing."
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Lee's thrillingly resonant baritone makes Banville's poetic evocation of the brooding Max Morden even more absorbing. As the story oscillates between two pivotal times in Morden's life-the strange events of a boyhood summer by the sea in Ireland, and the illness and death of his wife half a century later-Banville makes Morden's world fully rounded with endlessly intricate thoughts and perceptions. The lyrical writing, full of half-rhymes and alliteration, blossoms even more beautifully in the audio version than on the page, and Lee has a great sense for the material, varying his tone from sonorous heights to sing-songy to wistful sighs. Whether quickening with young Morden's naive lust for the mother in the tragic Grace family who he encounters at the beach, or growing heavy with the memory of his wife's helplessness at her cancer diagnosis, Lee convincingly inhabits the character. His Irish accent adds authenticity without distracting from the prose, though some listeners may find Banville's daunting vocabulary more of a challenge to keep up with on audio. The absence of chapter breaks and the minimal dialogue helps Lee's voice gather force as he reads, becoming a powerful wave that bears the listener along, a privileged vantage from which to witness the riveting spectacle of Morden baring his soul. Simultaneous release with the Vintage paperback (Reviews, Nov. 7, 2005). (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"I have carried the memory of that moment through a whole half century, as if it were the emblem of something final, precious and irretrievable," says the narrator of Banville's Booker Prize-winning novel of a relatively trivial moment. But when he recalls the mother and daughter whom he first loved as a barely pubescent child-whose presence pulled him out of the shadow of his paltry self-he observes, "The two figures in the scene, I mean Chloe and her mother, are all my own work." Memory, then, is the subject of this brief but magisterial work, a condensed teardrop of a novel that captures perfectly the essence of irretrievable longing. After the death of his wife, Max has retreated to the seashore where he spent his childhood summers, staying at an inn that was once the home of a magnificent, careless family called the Graces. It's as if reawakening the pain of his first, terrible loss-that high-strung and volatile Chloe-will ease his more recent loss. The novel is written in a complex, luminous prose that might strike some as occasionally overblown, and Chloe's final act didn't entirely persuade this reviewer. The result? A breathtaking but sometimes frustrating novel. Highly recommended.-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt


They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.

The name of the house is the Cedars, as of old. A bristling clump of those trees, monkey-brown with a tarry reek, their trunks nightmarishly tangled, still grows at the left side, facing across an untidy lawn to the big curved window of what used to be the living room but which Miss Vavasour prefers to call, in landladyese, the lounge. The front door is at the opposite side, opening on to a square of oil-stained gravel behind the iron gate that is still painted green, though rust has reduced its struts to a tremulous filigree. I am amazed at how little has changed in the more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here. Amazed, and disappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for reasons that are obscure to me, since why should I desire change, I who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past? I wonder why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a pebble-dashed windowless white end-wall to the road; perhaps in former times, before the railway, the road ran in a different orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the front door, anything is possible. Miss V. is vague on dates but thinks a cottage was first put up here early in the last century, I mean the century before last, I am losing track of the millennia, and then was added on to haphazardly over the years. That would account for the jumbled look of the place, with small rooms giving on to bigger ones, and windows facing blank walls, and low ceilings throughout. The pitchpine floors sound a nautical note, as does my spindle-backed swivel chair. I imagine an old seafarer dozing by the fire, landlubbered at last, and the winter gale rattling the window frames. Oh, to be him. To have been him.

When I was here all those years ago, in the time of the gods, the Cedars was a summer house, for rent by the fortnight or the month. During all of June each year a rich doctor and his large, raucous family infested it—we did not like the doctor’s loud-voiced children, they laughed at us and threw stones from behind the unbreachable barrier of the gate—and after them a mysterious middle-aged couple came, who spoke to no one, and grimly walked their sausage dog in silence at the same time every morning down Station Road to the strand. August was the most interesting month at the Cedars, for us. The tenants then were different each year, people from England or the Continent, the odd pair of honeymooners whom we would try to spy on, and once even a fit-up troupe of itinerant theatre people who were putting on an afternoon show in the village’s galvanised-tin cinema. And then, that year, came the family Grace.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel. Books with bleached and dog-eared covers were thrown carelessly on the shelf under the sportily raked back window, and there was a touring map of France, much used. The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside, downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen. Even his feet, I noticed, were brown on the insteps; the majority of fathers in my experience were fish-belly white below the collar-line. He set his tumbler—ice-blue gin and ice cubes and a lemon slice—at a perilous angle on the roof of the car and opened the passenger door and leaned inside to rummage for something under the dashboard. In the unseen upstairs of the house the girl laughed again and gave a wild, warbling cry of mock-panic, and again there was the sound of scampering feet. They were playing chase, she and the voiceless other. The man straightened and took his glass of gin from the roof and slammed the car door. Whatever it was he had been searching for he had not found. As he turned back to the house his eye caught mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually did, at once arch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, a conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost, as if this moment that we, two strangers, adult and boy, had shared, although outwardly without significance, without content, even, nevertheless had meaning. His eyes were an extraordinary pale transparent shade of blue. He went back inside then, already talking before he was through the door. “Damned thing,” he said, “seems to be . . .” and was gone. I lingered a moment, scanning the upstairs windows. No face appeared there.

That, then, was my first encounter with the Graces: the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps, and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.

Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling through the front teeth that I have begun to do recently. Deedle deedle deedle, it goes, like a dentist’s drill. My father used to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the corridor Colonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the afternoon talk programmes, the ones in which irate members of the public call up to complain about villainous politicians and the price of drink and other perennial irritants. “Company,” he says shortly, and clears his throat, looking a little abashed, his protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though I have issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard to picture him there in his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape and hands clasped behind that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man itself, from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to the tip of his conical skull. He has his hair cut every Saturday morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quarter given, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed leathery ears stick out, they look as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge. I can hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what they say. I may go mad here. Deedle deedle.

Later that day, the day the Graces came, or the following one, or the one following that, I saw the black car again, recognised it at once as it went bounding over the little humpbacked bridge that spanned the railway line. It is still there, that bridge, just beyond the station. Yes, things endure, while the living lapse. The car was heading out of the village in the direction of the town, I shall call it Ballymore, a dozen miles away. The town is Ballymore, this village is Ballyless, ridiculously, perhaps, but I do not care. The man with the beard who had winked at me was at the wheel, saying something and laughing, his head thrown back. Beside him a woman sat with an elbow out of the rolled-down window, her head back too, pale hair shaking in the gusts from the window, but she was not laughing only smiling, that smile she reserved for him, sceptical, tolerant, languidly amused. She wore a white blouse and sunglasses with white plastic rims and was smoking a cigarette. Where am I, lurking in what place of vantage? I do not see myself. They were gone in a moment, the car’s sashaying back-end scooting around a bend in the road with a spurt of exhaust smoke. Tall grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman’s hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreaming stillness.

I walked down Station Road in the sunlit emptiness of afternoon. The beach at the foot of the hill was a fawn shimmer under indigo. At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the world reduced to a few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky. I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this the least of them. As I approached I heard a regular rusty screeching sound. A boy of my age was draped on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar, propelling himself with one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter circle over the gravel. He had the same straw-pale hair as the woman in the car and the man’s unmistakable azure eyes. As I walked slowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered, rather, he stuck the toe of his plimsoll into the gravel to stop the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression of hostile enquiry. It was the way we all looked at each other, we children, on first encounter. Behind him I could see all the way down the narrow garden at the back of the house to the diagonal row of trees skirting the railway line—they are gone now, those trees, cut down to make way for a row of pastel-coloured bungalows like dolls’ houses—and beyond, even, inland, to where the fields rose and there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorse bushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with scrolled white clouds. Suddenly, startlingly, the boy pulled a grotesque face at me, crossing his eyes and letting his tongue loll on his lower lip. I walked on, conscious of his mocking eye following me.

Meet the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. The author of thirteen previous novels, he has been the recipient of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.

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The Sea 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the third book of Banville's I have read and I will never read another. His characters are consistently depressing and world-loathing, his story lines and plots are very lightweight although he seems to enjoys creating an over emphasis on sounds, tastes, smells and most everyting else that has no true relevance to the story itself. He has a certain proclivity to overwriting simple scenes and thoughts to needlessly elongated, tedious pages of overblown prose. He also has a certain fetish for throwing in arcane and little used words every page or two, perhaps to demonstrate the range of his thesaurus. Regardless, he has somehow gained a reputation that is considerably larger and better than his writing in anyway deserves. Pass on this and you won't resent the loss of money you spent on this small, insignicant book
harstan More than 1 year ago
Middle aged Irishman Max Morden mourns deeply the loss of his wife Anna. Needing to escape the overwhelming memories and though fifty years have passed since he has been there, Max retreats to the Cedars, a house that was the summer home of the Graces, who strongly influenced him when he was a child. He takes a room there hiding from his normal now dispirited life. --- Max thinks back to that summer when the affluent Graces vacationed at the Cedars. They ¿adopted¿ him as their personal waif for those glorious months. Though the parents, the authoritative father and the real family ruler the mother treated him nicely, the twin daughters Chloe and Myles were his connection. He compares that time with the lingering illness until death do us part of his spouse and his daughter Claire. Worried about her dad, Claire tries to help Max overcome his depression but he wants to sink deeper into the past when death was something adults dealt with and youngsters like him blithely played all day without a care in the world. --- THE SEA runs fathoms deep as the audience obtains a remarkable character study that focuses on an individual who in spite of expecting the Grim Reaper to call cannot cope when the visit occurs. Max is morbid and melancholy as he mourns his loss and cannot cope with it while his daughter can readily see his angst but has no concept on how to return her dad to the living. Readers will sympathize with Max, but wonder whether the past will engulf his present and future or will he realize those idyllic days had woes too that his memories chose to discriminately ignore. --- Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a book with an entertaining plot. It is a fairly easy read but it is more like a momentary investigation of memory. A study of sudden hopelessness. A fragment of life when it becomes too overwhelming to live. I see it as a report from a period in life when things stand still and it is not clear what will happen next. A time when all one can do is to take a deep breath and wait. In those times it is natural to look back and reread pages one's life has written so far. Not that such a reminiscence improves a lot in the present moment but we can feel too paralyzed by grief to do anything else but keep rewinding the already recorded tape of our mind. So do not expect a lot of action because nothing too startling is going to happen. However, Banville skillfully weaves a few threads into a carpet of the past that safely carries us on our expedition where we visit the life of a middle aged man Max. Maybe not unless you suffered patches of total loneliness in your own life will you be able to suffer the melancholy of Max(Morden), a man now over 50 yo whose wife Anne recently died, a process that took a year. Grieving he returns to a place by the sea where he spent a memorable summer as a child and encountered a well off family called Graces. They too were there on their vacation that didn't end happily. The characters that are introduced in the book serve as a background to Max and his attempt to deal with his feeling of abandonment. A witness to oneself fallen apart. Banville ambitiously uses some elaborate vocabulary so have a OED at hand. 'The truth is, it all has begun to run together, past and possible future and impossible present.'
ellemorgan More than 1 year ago
You definitely can't breeze through Banville's writing; his words demand to be savored.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read Sea on the recommendation of a reviewer that claimed it was a good book about grieving like Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. Wrong. I didn't care about the characters. Everything and everyone spanned between dismal and boring. I see no greatness in Banville's writing. He seems to be a disturbed individual. This book was the equivalence of sticking a pencil in your eye.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mingy is the Brit word for this book (a combination of stingy and mean?). The main character and his daughter have no appeal and his fine writing about an Irish coastal holiday resort is boring. I gave up after 100 pages.
manbooker1989 More than 1 year ago
The man in the story is confused and tries to go back to understand. The past is mixed with the present and the lives of the select few he choses to depict. Love and hate, wonderment and resentment. It is as much a growing-up story as it is a story of self-realization. As one reads the first part one gets a feel for the book, but it was like molasses, in its own right. But the book has a vibe to it that makes the last 100 pages or so, not so bad. Verily, at first, I was thrown off the wonderful prose by the use of large and un-orderly words. His flow is nice and the story is told with shady undertones, brilliantly used. I must say that it took me by surprise when I read it. Though I am reserved in my praise, for I believe no one likes to look up a word every page, I will say that every-so-often a smooth passage would give me a chill and delight would intermingle with the wonder at the beautiful words. The characters are very real and have different personalities that bring them to life, changing the scene or increasing the tension of a moment just by being there. Banville is wonderful with allusions, though not always know, are very impressive. One might say that it is just fluff or description, but the description mimics the characters and portents are shown clearly, if not subtlety, through the petulant power of the sea. A story is told; maybe not poignantly seen at first, but it is there with a bare transparent film of skin. Certainly an enjoyable, read and most likely a vocabulary-increaser. The more times I read it the better I like it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
tink2 More than 1 year ago
One of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. Banville clearly loves language and knows how to use it with breathtaking skill.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
THE SEA is an absolutely fascinating book, a tragic but beautiful short novel.Written in a rich but clear language, it takes the reader through a breath-taking journey that climaxes to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.Like all true great books, THE SEA is a novel you enjoy with increasing depth as you read it again and again .As far-reaching as Shades of Fire,as sobering as Kite Runner, as despairingly hopeful as The Union Moujik,and as gripping as NIGHT, the story of THE SEA will stick in your mind long after you read it.
Jack13152 More than 1 year ago
Worth the effort to keep going and finish it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where is Creekkit and Rosekit?!
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I had the distinct pleasure of reading this short, beautiful book aloud to my son. To be fair, he's but an infant, so perhaps he couldn't have cared less what I was reading... However, it was quite the enjoyable experience for me to take it all in at a slow pace. I will not summarize the plot, as that has been done by other reviewers. Let me just say that _The Sea_ was deserving of the prestigious Booker Prize and perhaps one of the best Booker-winning books I've read. This book should be slowly read and enjoyed by many and I'm thrilled to have been introduced to a new author (previously unknown to me). I will be sending copies as gifts, as _The Sea_ comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by this reader.
prenoun More than 1 year ago
Reminiscent to me, strangely, of Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach," John Banville's "The Sea" meditates on memory and death, and the unexpectedly circular connections, the meaningful bringing back, we seek to embed a purpose in our time on earth. The books ponders, and encourages pondering, as art critic Max layers his lost wife, his ever present mortality, and the ache of simultaneous discovery and loss that defined his childhood, like transparencies, until the effort to distinguish one event from another becomes a process of surgery rather than selectively setting each moment aside. This fluidity seems the titular Sea - the inability to separate those most important moments, in reality or remembrance, from the flow of all we experience and know, and from the wonder of our self-discovery and self-recognition, even as those defining moments reveal us to be less than we believed. We are shifted by this force in ways we cannot make sense of, and, by giving over to memory, lost within our ever-present understanding of all that we are and all that we are denied. (Also posted at Goodreads.)
Lagniappe_Literature More than 1 year ago
A beautiful book about a less than lovable man. At first glance, the flowery language and overuse of adverbs was annoying; however, the reader discovers that this writing style was less a grammatical or stylistic error, but more of a literary device that John Banville utilized to show the character of the protagonist narrator, Max Morden, an art historian from working classes origins. Morden, a social climber since childhood, recounts a unique relationship he had as a child with a set of twins met while on vacation on the seashore in Ireland. After his wife dies of cancer, he escapes to the recesses of his memory and replays this relationship as well as the events that led to its harrowing end. The novel is a wondrous meditation on memory, grief and the shock of self-awareness found later in life and the regrets that may follow. If the reader has experienced the grief of the loss of a dearly missed loved one, this novel is a "must read."
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