Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Sea ,The Sea

From my review of John Banville's The Sea in the Star today:
THE past beats inside me like a second heart,” writes Max Morden, the elderly narrator of John Banville’s Booker Prize short listed The Sea. Max takes up lodging in a boarding house, The Cedars, in the small Irish seaside town where he once spent childhood holidays.

Ostensibly there to finish writing a book of art criticism, he makes instead a journey into the past, writing a memoir to make sense of his personal history. A tragedy is foreshadowed from the very first page of the novel.

The Sea is about memory and how we reconstruct the past for ourselves. We embroider and edit, recall insignificant details with perfect clarity and yet forget things that are important to us.

In Max’s narrative one memory conjures another as he moves between different layers of the past. Much of the story is told in a series of vignettes: time is frozen so that Max can step inside the frame and examine each detail for fresh significance.

Recently widowed, Max wanders back through “the chamber of horrors” in his head and revisits his wife Anna’s terminal illness, from prognosis to death. “She is lodged in me like a knife” he laments, yet already the memory of her is fading.

Memories are as “real” as anything in the physical world, he decides: “Which is more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth any longer retains of her?”

Max’s relationship with the Graces, another family he met at this town when he was a child, is also re-examined. The events of “the day of the strange tide” continue to haunt him and he hopes that by returning to The Cedars, which the family made their holiday home, he can make sense of what happened.

In flashbacks we watch as 10-year-old Max encounters the family on the beach and falls into an easy acquaintance with the strange twins, Myles and Chloe. Max, already aware of social distinctions, adopts the family hoping that something of their “godlike” stature will rub off on him.

Despite definite echoes of L.P. Hartley’s classic novel, The Go-between, this is not a tale of childhood innocence lost. The children taunt the child-minder, Rose, cruelly when they think they have discovered the object of her secret infatuation. (The truth is revealed much later.) Max harbours violent feelings for the strange web-footed mute, Myles, and feels for Mrs Grace with an emotional intensity that has him weeping for her in “rapturously love struck grief”, until he transfers his affections to the capricious and sexually precocious Chloe.

The twins, though, remain distant and inscrutable: the mysterious psychic bond between them so strong that, as Chloe tells Max, it’s as if they were a couple of convicts on the run, shackled together.

The Sea is an achingly melancholy and beautifully written novel. It is impossible to read it without feeling grief for our own small lives measured against the immensity of time and the uncaring physical universe.

Consequently, we do not feel a particular horror at the long anticipated tragedy played out at the end of the book. It is, Max realises, “just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference” and there is a strange justice in the novel’s climax.

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