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The Sea, by John Banville

Swept away on the tide of memories

The Sea is a novel dominated by the ebb and flow of memory. It centres on the figure of Max Morden, a widower whose wife has recently died of cancer. Bereft and torn from the moorings that have anchored his adult life, Max, prompted by a dream, returns to the seaside village where he spent one formative childhood summer. He settles in a boarding house, the Cedars, that was rented by a family, the Graces, whom Max befriended when he was young, and it is the narrative of that fateful summer which pulls like an insistent undertow throughout this fluid and affecting work.

Banville demonstrates a masterful technical control of his material. The narrative moves in a stately, tidal motion across the past as Max loses himself in reveries. The Graces, he remembers, exercised a peculiar fascination on his childhood self. They are monied, sophisticated and distinctly his social superiors. Max deliberately ingratiates himself among them by befriending their two children, non-identical twins Chloe and the mute and somewhat spooky Myles. Though he first forms a crush on the mother, Max soon transfers his affections to Chloe - a girl a couple of years his senior and hovering on the verge of pubescence.

While the novel dwells meditatively on the childhood pursuits that dominated his summer, Max's memories of the Graces also act as a springboard for more wide-ranging recollections about the ups and downs of his married life, the doomed relationship of his parents, and the tortuous death of his wife, Anna. Yet it is not the events themselves which are particularly noteworthy but Banville's ability to tease out, in a prose that is never less than exquisitely wrought, the resonances in the commonplace which echo with amplified significance throughout an individual's life.

Max is a writer of sorts who is attempting (though failing) to write a book on the painter Bonnard. As the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that language itself is not simply its medium but its theme. The Sea is a meditation on memory, identity and language, rich in literary allusion, brilliant in the subtlety of its detailed observation, wholly overpowering in its accumulated force. It confirms Banville's reputation as once of finest prose stylists working in English today and, in the sheer beauty of its achievement, is unlikely to be bettered by any other novel published this year.