Max Morden, a retired art historian in his mid fifties (and this allows him to display a series of analogies from painting—Bonnard, Van Gogh, Picasso) retreats to the sea after his wife dies of cancer. He has been, in his own words, a dilettante kept by a rich wife and this Irish seaside, where he once spent a holiday as a boy, is the setting in which he starts remembering and mixing traumatic episodes as a way to grapple with death. The sea is also the place where he first fell in love with an entire family, the wealthy and sophisticated Grace family, named by the narrator as ‘The gods’. (Mr Grace is “the Poseidon of our summer”, the twin children are also seen through mythology. Myles, who is mute and has webbed toes is a “malignant sprite”. Chloe, producing “an archaic pipe-note” by blowing on a blade of grass, is Pan. Even the children’s governess, Rose, is “Ariadne on the Naxos shore”).
There’s two scenes that I consider masterful in the novel, and they regard Morden’s wife. One takes place when, under chemotherapy, she looks at another woman in the street, a woman evidently undergoing her same ‘treatment’ and the narrator describes the gaze between the two women, a fleeting but powerful gaze, intimate, inaccessible, abyssal. And then, while at the hospital, she starts taking photographs of the inmates. This causes some stir in the hospital, although the sick people were posing willingly and even happily.
Winner of the Booker Man Prize 2005, the judges said:
“The Sea is both a reconciliation with loss and an extraordinary meditation on identity and remembrance. Utterly compelling, profoundly moving and illuminating, it is unquestionably one of the finest works yet from a sublime master of language”.
In an interview Banville said: “The novel is taken less and less seriously these days, and one has a duty of care for the poor old battered medium.”