Reviews of The Sea

Nicholas Lezard

The Guardian – 06 May 2006


It won last year’s Booker prize, so does not exactly need the oxygen of publicity: but this almost airless, deliberately stifled book is one of the more interesting titles that the prize has been conferred upon recently.


Terrence Rafferty

The New York Times – 27 November 2005


John Banville’s new novel seems at first as simple and straightforward as its title, and as familiar: one of those wispy, graceful books about memory and regret, in which an aging narrator takes us back to a semi-idyllic childhood that will, we know, end with a terrible, shocking event – something sexual, most likely – after which nothing will ever be the same. The past is a foreign country, and all that. “The Sea” is, at least apparently, the sort of novel English writers do in their sleep. But Banville is Irish, which puts him at a bit of a disadvantage, since Irish writers on the whole prefer to remain awake during the act of composition. And Banville, as he has demonstrated pretty conclusively in 13 previous novels, is not an artist to whom simplicity comes naturally.


Stephen Narain

The Harvard Book Review – 2008


The author of over a dozen novels, including The Newton Letter, The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable, John Banville has been hailed by critics as the heir to Nabokov for his lyrical inventiveness and black comedy. Others prefer to charge Banville with an overzealous use of Roget, describing his work as cold, self-absorbed, and sacrificing substance in the name of style. In a 1997 interview with Beatrice, however, Banville commented that “we move through a blessed world, in which we know nothing except through style, and in which everything is redeemed by style.” This philosophy makes navigating Banville’s luxurious sentences a necessarily arduous process. The reader is expected to butt heads with the text, engaging in a process of struggle before arriving at insight.


Lewis Jones

The Telegraph – 05 June 2005


With his fastidious wit and exquisite style, John Banville is the heir to Nabokov. His early novels were about scientists – Copernicus, Kepler and Newton – and were superbly accomplished, but he really hit his stride with The Book of Evidence (1989), which was about a criminal aesthete, and which grew into a trilogy with Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995). In The Untouchable (1997), he brilliantly translated this dynamic into a fictional autobiography of Anthony Blunt. He returns to it in The Sea, his best novel so far.


Yvonne Zipp

The Christian Science Monitor – 08 November 2005


Max Morden hasn’t been swimming in a really long time. Fifty years ago, he witnessed a tragedy at a seaside resort in Ireland, and hasn’t put a toe in the water since. So, a day at the beach seems like an unlikely choice for the grieving widower. But after the death of his wife, the art historian has been drawn back to the place of that older tragedy, to stay at the house of the wealthy family with whom he was infatuated as a boy. (Desperate to escape his poor and warring parents, he had latched on to the Graces, mother, father, and twins – Myles and Chloe.)


Finn Fordham

The Guardian – 25 June 2005


Max Morden, whose name points to death and, like the Northern line terminus, an end, is mourning the wife he has recently lost to cancer. He returns to the seaside of his childhood summers to stay in the house where his first love had also once stayed. Reconstruction through memory is Morden’s drug: he binges on it and on grief, booze and writing. The sea is where his first love disappeared and where he is now disappearing. The sea is memory itself, its high rising tides are what threaten to drown the present and even the past. Like memory, the sea has a life of its own: at the close of the novel, Morden remembers a moment when a strange swell seemed to express the unacceptably cruel world: “the whole sea surged . . . Just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”


Tibor Fischer

The Telegraph – 07 June 2005

John Banville’s new novel The Sea comes garlanded with endorsements from Martin Amis and Don DeLillo. It’s easy to understand why he excites so much admiration from his colleagues. Banville is a man who has no fear of the great expanses of the English language (as a youth, I was mightily impressed by the catalogue of terms for “masturbation” in Doctor Copernicus). The literary editor of the Irish Times, shortlisted for the Booker and the recipient of several other novelist’s gongs, Banville is a revered name in the book world.


Deirdre Donahue

USA Today – 11 July 2005


For readers who take books and literature seriously, The Sea is a must-have. One periodically rereads a sentence just to marvel at its beauty, originality and elegance.


Jessica Winter

The Village Voice – 08 November 2005


Winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, The Sea is “possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest” (per The Independent), “a crashing disappointment” (the Times of London), “more like sitting an exam than taking in a tale” (the Telegraph). But then again, “that damn prize, which obsesses us so much on this side of the Atlantic, is no certain measure of literary worth. Booker judging panels are notorious for the eccentricity of their decisions.”


John Crowley

The Washington Post – 13 November 2005


“Everything for me is something else,” thinks Max, the narrator of John Banville’s new Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea . He is remembering the details of a bath painting by Pierre Bonnard. A Bonnard expert in a dilettantish way, he is wondering if the window in that bathroom might be interpreted as actually the back of another painting on an easel. It’s a wonderfully delicate symbol of Max’s solipsistic striving after human connection in a world he is largely composing out of his unreliable memories and sensations.