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The Sea: To Read or Not to Read?

The Sea, by Irish author John Banville, was reviewed in The Guardian as one of the best Irish novels. Because I have plans to travel to Ireland soon, I wanted to familiarize myself with the work of a contemporary writer. The novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and has won heaps of praise from critics, such as:

“…a piece of violent poetry.”

“…has so many beautifully constructed sentences that every few pages something cries out to be underlined.”

“Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing.”

Although many readers concur with the brilliance of the novel, there are many who don’t:

“…completely blown away by its pretentiousness.”

“I just couldn’t get through it.”

“…overcrafted exercise in writing.”

Banville wrote this novel of grief and memory in a stream-of-consciousness style that weaves together fragments of his summers on the Irish sea together with his wife’s untimely illness and death. His thoughts jump between far past, recent past, and present and are interspersed with diversions that don’t seem to follow, but in the scheme of things, they are important parts of the story.

Although the book might seem stream of conscious, in real life, no one would have such well-crafted thoughts or speech. It’s obvious that Banville sculpts each sentence, choosing words carefully. All this adds up to The Sea being in the category of literary fiction. It’s not the sort of book I would pick up for a quick read or easy entertainment. It takes time to digest each word. Banville is a marvelous writer who expects his readers to want to go on a literary journey.

He sometimes extends common words for effects, such as landladyese and novelettishly. These extensions are easy to understand, especially in context.

He makes frequent reference to art works and myths, with the painter Bonnard being the most frequent reference because the main character is supposed to be writing a book about Bonnard’s works. But there are many other references, too numerous to list, with which readers might or might not be familiar, such as Gilles de Rais and Ariadne auf Naxos.

Just about every page offers up rich imagery, such as:

“…the cheesy tang in the crevices of her elbows and her knees.”

“…the foliage hissing in scandalised protest…”

“…glutinous summer…”

All too often in the book I encountered unfamiliar words. For some, the context gave me the essence of the word. For others, I was happy to be reading the ePub version so I could check the definition. I don’t claim to have an extensive vocabulary. Even if I get the sense of a word, if I don’t use it in everyday communication, my unsureness sends me to the dictionary. Banville uses such words as: vituperation, casuistry, scumbling, mephitic, soughing, knobkerrie, assegais, illimitable, purblind sozzled, plangent, littoral, anabasis, inamorato, crapulent, aperçus, vulgate, refulgent, graving, apotropaic, leporine.

The book has only two chapters, titled Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. If like me, you plan a reading session by chapters, you may want to set your goal to break at points in the novel where the paragraph spacing indicates a shift in time or place, like a scene change.

Should you read this book or pass it up? I recommend the book for anyone interested in literary novels and who is prepared to give the book the attention that it deserves. It has a story, although at times I wondered where the writing was leading. Banville does bring together the many threads in the book to a conclusion. Although the conclusion might not be as dramatic as a whodunnit novel, I found it to be satisfying.

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