A momentous nothing – “The Sea” by John Banville

March 10, 2012 at 11:27 am 4 comments

The Sea” by John Banville, Published 2005 

If you are looking for a light read with a clean start-to-finish plot this is not the book for you.  It is, however, a beautifully written examination of a man’s losses and his remaining pieces of life. But ultimately not a lot happens. If you are not looking for a complicated read the back and forth memories can be maddening.  Luckily, I was in the right frame of mind for this book and I loved it.  Another week I may have thrown it down and picked up something else.

Max is a middle-aged writer who has lost his wife, Anna, to cancer.  After spending months watching her waste away and finally losing her battle, Max returns to a beach resort town where he had spent many

Cover of "The Sea"

Cover of The Sea

summers in his youth.  His return seems to be have two purposes. First, he seems to want to revisit the first loss of innocence that he experienced with the Grace family in his very early teens.  Second, it is at the beach resort that he tries to desperately hold onto to his images of his wife.  His desperation asks what maybe we all would ask when losing our partner – “Why have you not come back to haunt me? It is the least I would have expected of you.”

As Max remembers his summer with the Grace family it becomes clear that those relationships – not just with Chloe and Myles (the twin siblings his age) but also with Ms. Grace who was his first unrequited love- shape his future self and leave an unshakable, indelible mark on him.   This storyline of the Graces, though perhaps meant to be the most compelling, for me only paled in comparison to his relationship with his dying wife.  Max talks about how he wished at times Anna would end her own misery for both of their sakes but then feels guilty about this wish.  He also shares a fear that we all have when we lose someone we love, that fear of forgetting everything or really anything at all about the person.  And so, he begins a descend into a drunken haze trying to cope with his loss, of both his wife and the Graces, while at the same time trying desperately to remember.

The sea is itself a character here.  It has that force of nature that ebbs and flows careless but so inviting to the broken people around it, very quickly becoming the catalyst for more than one event in Max’s life.   But Max returns time and time again to the sea, almost as if the sea will somehow explain something, anything.  And Max himself seems to treat life a lot like he is always anchored in the sea – people come along, change Max’s reality and then float away. And yet, Max seems to remain.

Perhaps it is the being left behind that can become so incapacitating. With the losses Max experiences he becomes smaller, almost an inconsequential player in his own life.  Even in his memories Max is continually the observer. But I think in a lot of ways that is how our memories work. We remember those we have loved not necessarily in the ways we interacted with them, but more in a way that lets us remember the smell of the skin, the twist of the hair, the laugh – all pieces of the people we love.  And we do hold tightly to those pieces, so that we don’t forget even if to others these memories are meaningless. So the novel, that seems to be about nothing at all, is really about a lot of very important pieces of a very “momentous nothing.”


Entry filed under: March 2012 reads. Tags: , , , , .

“If you want to empower a people, give them a story to share” – “The Tiger’s Wife” and “The Healing” Anyone for a cocktail? – “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Claire 'Word by Word'  |  March 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Best read without any of the accompanying hype that surrounded it when it won the Booker prize. You did well to wait until now, I don’t think I appreciated it as much because of all the publicity at that time.

    • 2. Emily C  |  March 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

      I agree. I am always hesitant to read a book when there is a lot of hype and awards. I am typically very disappointed. I am still on the fence about whether this lives up to the hype but it was well written.

  • 3. Nella  |  March 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for this review – it is beautifully written. I missed the book when it first came out, but will look for it now.

    • 4. Emily C  |  March 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Thanks Nella. I hope you like it.


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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