The Sea by John Banville
Max Morden, the narrator of The Sea, is an aging art historian, not wildly successful, has been writing a book on the painter Bonnard but in fact has not got past chapter one and some notes he himself finds banal. His wife has recently died and he’s taken up temporary residence at The Cedars, a seaside resort in a house he remembers from childhood when he visited the area for summer vacations with his parents. He has gone to the place he calls Ballyless because of a dream in which nothing happens but in which he is “a big awkward boy” (as he had been once) walking down a road in winter, a dream which promised resolution of some kind. He immediately associated the resolution needed with the summer of the Graces where he befriended an odd set of twins (the boy have never spoken) and their parents, obviously richer and socially better placed than he was.
Max goes back and forth from that summer with the Graces, to the death of his wife, to his current life as a resident of the same house the Graces inhabited that significant summer, with sidetracks to his childhood (father abandoned mother who had no skills), his daughter Claire in the present, and various episodes in his career and life with Anna, his wife. It’s not really stream of consciousness: Max is not only conscious as he tells his story but doles it out in carefully chosen bits and pieces, withholding information to increase suspense but also to mislead readers. To the extent that any teller who shapes his own tale is bound to be centered on the self and more interested in the listener’s impression of him than in strict veracity, Max is unreliable.
Critics rave about Banville’s consummate prose in this novel—and he is a great stylist—but forget to mention that the language is Max’s, a bit pompous, with lots of big words and references to works of art the reader is presumed to know but may not. Banville takes a chance on a character readers may not like a lot. Max is stubborn, isolates himself, possibly even from the rich wife he mourns, certainly from his solicitous daughter. He’s at once brutally honest about his short-comings and out to make himself if not a tragic hero, at least a figure who looms, one whose life holds mysteries and tragedies big enough to matter.
Going to The Cedars allows him to relive the summer with the Graces, where he first fell in love with the woman and then with Chloe her strange and often cruel daughter. The other residents of the house are Myles, Chloe’s silent and enigmatic twin, the father, and Rose, the girl hired to watch the children for the summer. Max never mentions age but obviously he and Chloe were that summer just on the brink of sexual maturity. Max—typical kid looking for conspiracies—attributes much of the tension in the household to Rose’s being in love with Mr. Grace. Clearly there are tensions and clearly they will build to a tragic conclusion, and it’s one that Max has never dealt with or even put behind him.