Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2020

The Sea (2005), by John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize in 2005

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Sea, by John Banville, won the Booker Prize in 2005

October 10th, 2005

The Sea is a brilliant book. I don’t think it can be matched for the quality of its poetic prose or the cleverness of its imagery both sharp and subtle. It arouses intense feelings of nostalgia, loss, impatience and relief – it’s really quite extraordinary.

Max Morden has lost his beloved wife Anna, and he isn’t coping well at all. He’s a middle-ranking art historian and he’s supposed to be writing a book about Bonnard (a French artist), but he’s not getting anywhere because he’s wallowing in grief and old memories and alcohol.

His memories revert to childhood. When he was a child he went on holiday to the ‘chalet’, the cheap part of a holiday village, where he met the Graces, middle-class and socially a step above him and his deserted mother. He becomes a part of their household at The Cedars, playing almost daily with twins Chloe and Myles. He falls in love, as eleven year old boys do, first with the rather slatternly mother (overweight, vague, drinks too much) and then with Chloe, fumbling with her at the beach and at the pictures. Disaster strikes when Rose, inept au pair/governess to the twins, catches Max fondling Chloe’s budding breasts at the beach and they have a blazing row, culminating inexplicably in Chloe swimming out into an unusually high tide, followed by mute, web-toed and probably intellectually-disabled Myles. They both drown.

The memory of this event is so strong that when Anna dies, Max goes back to The Cedars to grieve. As in Marion Halligan’s The Fog Garden, he seems to become lost in memories, overwhelmed by the loss of Anna and the twins. In what passes for life in Miss Vavasour’s boarding house, there are some acutely funny descriptions of The Colonel, Miss V and her awful friend ‘Bun’, but the general tone of the book is of unbearable pain and loss, culminating in Max getting so drunk that he knocks himself out at the beach. He has to be rescued ignominiously by the Colonel, and is finally carted off to be rehabilitated by his daughter, Clair, and her droopy boyfriend, Jerome. Ghastly as this ending seems, in the context of what’s gone before, there seems to be some hope because Max begins to plan escaping to paint in Paris.

It is a wonderful book, richly illuminating in its portrait of grief unresolved. It also shows Max’s painful agonies about which class he belongs to (still an issue in England!) and how needlessly lives can be wasted. Clair has probably left it too late to have either children or the career as an art scholar that she could have had. It is a very moving book, but I loved reading it.

I was on holiday in Italy when I read The Sea, and hated having to leave the book behind. I bought a new first edition when I returned home and had it autographed by Banville when he visited Melbourne!

I finished reading it and journalled it (on scraps of paper, brought home in the suitcase!) in Monterchi, Tuscany, on 20.10.2005.


  1. I also enjoyed this book. He is a brilliant writer and good to be reminded again. You are a touchstone for me Lisa particularly during this strange time when literary conversation is restrained. A big thanks again.


    • You’re welcome Fay:)
      I have my ups and downs too, and it is good for me to have the blog to keep me occupied… I’m sure it wouldn’t have the same effect on me if I didn’t have lovely people like you taking the time and trouble to comment.
      One day, we are going to meet up!


  2. I loved this book too. I just read his latest novel, Snow, and was reminded (again) how much I appreciate his work. For many years in my 20s he was my favourite writer. I keep thinking I need to go back and reread those books I loved so much because I can barely remember anything about them and it was all very much pre-blog / pre-internet so I have no aide memoire to help me.


    • I know what you mean… I am *still* reconstructing my lost Excel file of the books I’ve read, using Goodreads, Library Thing and my journals to do it. (I’m up to 2009). And I keep coming across book titles that bring back that bliss of reading and I just want to drop everything and go back to reading them again.
      But then I think… what if I don’t love them now?


  3. I do’t know why I haven’t read this yet – I keep putting it into my reading Ireland Month pile and I never get round to reading it. Sounds brililant and just my kind of thing!


    • I have books like that too…
      I used to have a ‘gunna’ pile, as in ‘I’m gunna read it this year’, but it didn’t work.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds like a wonderful read but also very, very sad. It has been on my shelves for some time now and deserves to be dusted off and read. Yes, indeed we are obsessed by class- in which our education system bears much responsibility!


    • Indeed yes, any school system that consists of private and government schools perpetuates class differences.


  5. So glad to hear you enjoyed it. It’s one of the “quieter” winners – no faddish experiments with style and form, just good, honest writing


    • By a master at depicting emotion!


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