It is essentially a reflective journal on memory and loss. Semi-retired art historian Max Mordern attempts to come to terms with the recent death of his wife Anna and understand the long ago disappearance of childhood friends Chloe and Myles Grace.
Choosing to stay in the coastal holiday home favoured by the Grace family (now a bed and breakfast run by Miss Vavasour) ostensibly to write and escape the immediacy of grief, Mordern instead ducks and weaves through recollections of his first childhood fantasy, his first love, his parents and the past years dealing with the slow death of Anna. Like all memories, there’s no linear recall and a reflection on a moment with his wife can seamlessly lead to a picnic with the Graces or Mordern’s mother coping with being abandoned by his father. And, like so many of Banville’s ‘heroes’, there’s always the bottle in which to find solace (in Max’s case, brandy).
There’s a whole litany of interesting characters in The Sea – Miss Vavasour and long-term resident of the B&B, the Colonel, in particular. But Mordern is not one of them. To his credit, whilst seeing himself as a victim, he at least avoids self-pity: this is not a maudlin tragedy. If anything, it is a meditation. But Banville has over-invested his middlebrow elegaic fictional prose in The Sea. It actually becomes tiresome and off-point.
Banville himself believes The Sea to be a work of art. This view was certainly shared by the judges of the 2005 Booker Prize – or at least the majority. A non-unanimous decision reliant on the chair’s casting vote presented the award to him over Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But to my mind this ‘piece of art’ propounds one of elitism and intellectual exclusivity. Banville is challenging – but in The Sea he seems to get carried away. There are times in the book when the clarity of purpose becomes apparent and the narrative moves forwards (or backwards) clearly. But too, too often this is for short periods only and the intellectual snobbery takes over.