Tuesday, January 26, 2016

the last book I read

The Sea by John Banville.

Max Morden, art critic and historian, has come to a nice quiet guest house in a quiet Irish seaside town in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Anna, from cancer. Not just any old guest house, though, but the former residence of the Grace family who he knew as a child, mainly through their twin children Chloe and Myles.

So we're in That Last Golden Summer territory here, or more specifically that sub-category That Last Golden Summer At The End Of Which That Thing Happened Where My Whole Life Went To Shit. So while he's ostensibly retreating to the coast to regroup after his wife's death and concentrate on making some progress on his latest book, on French artist Pierre Bonnard, Max is actually mooning around drinking too much and reflecting on his childhood visits and his friendship with Chloe and Myles.

Chloe was your standard spiky slightly feisty tomboyish type, while Myles was altogether stranger, web-toed and practically mute, although that didn't stop him and Chloe having that near-telepathic thing that twins have (at least in fiction). Their parents, Mr & Mrs Grace, also employed a governess, Rose, whose life Chloe in particular enjoyed making a misery. Max tagged along for trips to the seaside and other adventures, although seemingly more through proximity and convenience than through any great mutual liking.

So Max continues (in the book's nominal present) to fester at the guest house while his recollections flit between Chloe and Myles and more recent memories of his wife Anna's final days in hospital. Eventually he gets around to describing The Thing that happened to tear the Graces' lives (and to a lesser degree his own) apart - one of those sticky pre-adolescent sexual awakening things followed by a shocking and self-desctructive act of twinly solidarity by Chloe and Myles.

The whole "elderly person retreats to remote location to reflect on their life and That Golden Summer while the past threatens to catch up with them in unexpected ways" thing is a trope well-used in modern fiction, indeed the only other Banville on this list, Eclipse, is structured in a very similar way, as is The Heather Blazing and no doubt one or two others. The Sea is probably better than either of those, just because the queasy, claustrophobic cusp-of-puberty thing is always fascinating, and the contrast with Max's recollections of Anna's death is stark. That said, the pivotal event raises more questions than it answers and doesn't really fit with what we've been told about the twins up to that point.

But of course this is partly the point, since one of the things the book is about is the unreliableness of memory, even of fairly recent events like Anna's death, let alone childhood stuff from 50-odd years ago. The point is also that things like the plausibility of some of the key moments isn't really the point, the point being to revel in the richness of Banville's prose even as you think: well, that business with Chloe and Myles was a bit thinly-explained and unsatisfactory, wasn't it? And how much of this is meant to be taken as reliable recollection, since Max's arbitrary naming of the two nearby villages as Ballymore and Ballyless is pretty clearly not meant to be taken to resemble their real names?

The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (not without some controversy), beating, among other shortlisted novels, Never Let Me Go. This makes it - I think - the sixth Booker winner on this list, after G., The Gathering, Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Midnight's Children. If pressed I'd have to say I think that Never Let Me Go is a better book, but I did enjoy The Sea, probably more than either of the other two Banvilles (Eclipse and The Book Of Evidence) I've read - Banville's gift for a beautifully-crafted sentence make you inclined to forgive him for some meanderingness and implausibility of plot.

The Sea was made into a film in 2013, presumably with some smoothing out of the timeline. Plenty of heavy types in the cast list, though.

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