This is a Booker Prize winner. The language in this short novel is very, very rich, evocative and annoyingly, sent me to the dictionary far too many times for comfort. Banville is just showing off, descending into literary affectation perhaps. Two time-lines interweave as Max, a retired art critic, now living at The Cedars, a grand house of note from his youth, recalls those days when he lived with his family in much more modest surroundings and peered longingly into this place. Of course, it was not wealth per se that drew his 11 year old interest, but the presence of The Graces, not a religious fascination, but a family. A pan-like, goatish father, Carlo, an earth mother, Constance, white-haired (and thus summoning Children of the Damned notions) twins, a strange mute boy, Myles, who is sometimes comedic and sometimes sinister, a maybe-sociopathic girl, Chloe, and another girl, Rose, who appeared to be a mere friend, but was their governess. That this is left unclear for much of the book seems odd. Young Max enjoys the social step up he gets by hanging out with the twins, and is quite willing to go along with their cruelties to subservient locals, but is most taken with Constance Grace, pining for her in an awakening sexual way, until, of course, his heart, or some bodily part, is stolen by Chloe. There is a scent here of Gatsby-ish longing, and Max is indeed a social climber.
Death figures very prominently in The Sea. “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” is how it opens, and goes on very briefly to summon an image of a rising sea intent on devouring all. I will spare you the final death scene, but Max does indeed cope with death, the passing of his wife, Anna, contemplation of his own ultimate demise and how death, as personified by the sea, not only affected his life, but seems always with us.
This is I suppose a novel of coming and going of age. Banville is quite fond of deitific references, finding a different god or goddess for each of his characters. And his art-critic narrator sprinkles the narration with references to paintings. Sadly for me, I am completely unfamiliar with the works noted, so may have missed key references. Max is not a nice person. He engages in cruel behavior as a child and appears to lack a strong core of humanity, confessing that he doesn’t really know his daughter very well, and not seeming to care much.
I was almost satisfied with the ending, which recalls the most significant event of his youth, but I felt that it left unsatisfactorily unexplained the reasons for its occurrence. I was also frustrated by the slowness of the book. Although it is a short novel, it seemed to take a long time to get going. And the central characters do not call out for any of us to relate to them. All that said, while I might not award it a Booker, I would recommend it. The language is sublime (tote a dictionary while you read. You will need it.) and the payoff is good enough to justify the slow pace.