How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all authorities the uncanny is not some new thing, but a thing known returning in a different form? In Irish author Banvilles latest novel, Max is a middle-aged man whose wife has just died of cancer. Trying to comprehend his grief, he returns to the scene of a childhood tragedy. Here he finds parallels between the loss of his wife and a death he witnessed as a child. Both left him feeling bewildered and helpless, wondering how he might have done things differently. Readers who seek rip-roaring plots filled with action and gadgets will be disappointed. Banvilles work is all about subtle details, and mysterious emotions like memory and desire. The Sea is a sympathetic meditation on mortality and time: We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations.
Banville is most convincing when evoking the intensity of childhood. Like the boy in L.P. Hartleys The Go-Between, young Max perceives class differences and adult sexuality without understanding them. Fascinated by a glamorous family staying nearby, Max experiences his first erotic responses. He sees his dazzling neighbours as gods, above the constrictions that afflict lesser beings. His sunlit seaside memories are shadowed by a sense of dread, and unwitting damage.
The Sea reveals the unexpected connections between individuals, as well as the baffling distances. It is not as strange or poetic as Banvilles earlier novels, such as Birchwood or The Newton Letter, but this does make it a more accessible read. Though his prose has become less ornate, he still cant resist using words like flocculent, velutinous and cracaleured.
A melancholy, haunted book, The Sea offers no direct answers to the questions it raises: Can we ever really understand the people we love? How accurate are our memories? Why are sex and death so frequently entwined? What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark...
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.