I like to check out Booker prize winners from time to time, and that’s what brought me to this 2005 gem by the Irishman, John Banville. In many ways, it’s not my kind of book. If Banville were an artist, he’d be one of those paper and ink guys who record every detail of a limited scene. You’d know every doorknob of and window handle of a building’s facade. No matter how skilled the pen, though, that sort of thing gets tedious for me even if, like Banville he does it marvelously.
The Sea is, as one pundit says, a novel of coming of age and of mourning. A rare combination, but it works. Max is pretty old, and his wife has just died of cancer. He returns to a childhood seashore to grieve. The narrative moves back and forth between his present life and his boyhood. Banville unwraps Max’s spirit and its connection to recent and not-so-recent events and relationships as delicately as an archeologist dismembering a dead sea scroll. I recall, for example, one passage that begins with a boy recounting his fascination with hunting birds’ nests and the eggs and ending with Max holding the forehead of his vomiting, chemo-ridden love. And that’s not the only such transcendent passage.
So with all this praise, what’s not to like? The book jacket compares Banville to Nabakov, which I guess might be accurate to a point. For me, the better comparison is to Ishiguro. I admire and appreciate their every word, but they don’t speak to me, to my heart and spirit. Can’t quite explain it, but there it is. No doubt the guy’s a writer, and I won’t quarrel with his Booker, but, oh, well, another of those mysteries.
And another thing. There’s a secret in The Sea. I have a criterion about how authors should handle secrets. They should emerge as an organic part of the story. Banville holds off the revelation for literary effect. There is every reason to take the reader into the narrator’s confidence, no reason not to. Result, I felt irritated and manipulated when I finally read it. Other people don’t seem to be bothered by this. Obviously the Booker people weren’t. But it’s one of my pet literary peeves, and I won’t want it to pass unnoticed in Writer Working.