Impressions of The Sea

Last week I read The Sea, by John Banville. I went into the book essentially blind; I didn’t know much about Banville and didn’t even know what the novel’s about, but an acquaintance whose opinion I highly respect recommended it to me, so I dove in quickly.

The Sea is narrated by a man whose wife is dying, and the novel jumps back and forth between scenes with her and their daughter in the present, and his memories of spending time with a family in a beach town where he spent much of his childhood. I enjoyed Banville’s writing style; he spends a lot of time describing the setting and characters, so the story feels very real. He seems to have taken a great deal of care in how he phrases each statement, choosing just the right words for what he describes and savouring each paragraph. The narrator’s speech, though, still sounds natural, like someone speaking deliberately, trying to convey an experience even as he himself can’t quite tell why it feels significant, as in the following passage:

A dream it was that drew me here. In it, I was walking along a country road, and that was all. It was in winter, at dusk, or else it was a strange sort of dimly radiant night, the sort of night that there is only in dreams, and a wet snow was falling. I was determinedly on my way somewhere, going home, it seemed, although I did not know what or where exactly home might be. There was open land to my right, flat and undistinguished with not a house or hovel in sight, and to my left a deep line of darkly louring trees bordering the road. The branches were not bare despite the season, and the thick, almost black leaves drooped in masses, laden with snow that had turned to soft, translucent ice.

At just under 200 pages, the novel is fairly short, but it’s slow paced. Not a lot really happens here; the story meanders about, occasionally stopping to linger over this or that scene, or detail of a place or person, like a man freely sharing his memories. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the novel, even though there’s not much really wrong with it. Rather, I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get the most out of it. The Sea has a nostalgic sort of mood to it, and a reader probably needs to be in a nostalgic sort of mood himself to fully enjoy it.

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