Monday, 2 February 2015

The Sea by John Banville



At my book club meeting the night before I wrote this, I was bemoaning the fact that although I enjoyed reading The Princess Bride, it felt like there wasn't much room for me as the reader to bring myself to the book. The book persisted in explaining, and then explaining its explanations, when it came to the metanarrative. It was fine, but I more enjoy books that allow me space to expand within the book, that leave room for the reader to interact and interpret, to bring their own issues and see echoes of them.  The universe must known that was going to happen, because on the next tide, it delivered The Sea by John Banville.

This is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum, without slipping over into being opaque and inaccessible. It's very much an impressionistic account of grief and memory, and there are lots of spaces for me to fill with my own experiences of grief.

The main character is unlikeable. He's self-centered, a bit of a bully, secretive, and callous. Morden, as he's known as a child, or Max, his name as an adult. His wife has recently died. He has come back to the place where he spent his summer vacations as a child, and got to know a family. There are hints that that time ended with a tragedy, a bookending death.

Huh. I just went looking for the book cover, and found out it's been made for TV or movie (probably the BBC) with Ciaran Hinds, and the woman who is the prosecutor in the new season of Broadchurch. Good choices. But in this case, unlike The Princess Bride, I have no urge to see it.

It is in the meditations on grief that I find myself thinking. It's over four years now since my father died, but I still walk around feeling like I have a special purchase on grief, which I suppose I do compared to most people of my generation. There are, thankfully, not that many of us who have lost parents at this age. It's a really terrible club to be in.

What this book captured for me is the self-absorption of grief. Not selfishness, not even necessarily self-centeredness, but the way it takes over so much of your brain and your heart for such a long time, and makes it difficult to look outside yourself. You come back to yourself, if you're lucky, a kinder person, but in the meantime, it takes over everything, and sometimes doesn't even leave room to recognize the grief of others.

That's not a criticism. It would be like telling someone who had lost a limb to stop noticing it, or telling a burn victim just to ignore the pain. It's there, and it can become omnipresent. When we are hurting that badly, there is little left over for others.

The main character takes that to extremes, at one point even belittling his daughter when she says that she's hurting too. His grief allows for no recognition of others who are in pain, and although it made me angry at him, there was understanding there too.

If that was where my mind dwelt while reading this book, I should also say that the prose is wonderful and evocative, full of expressive details that give just enough without feeling the need to paint in every corner.

At the end, there's a bit of a surprise, and I didn't mind it, but I didn't really think it added much either. For me, anyway, this book was about the journey, and the experience, and because it was what it was, I didn't need it tied up in a neat little bow. But it was, and that was interesting. Not that all questions are answered, because those we would ask them are gone.

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