Dark musing by the Irish sea

The 2005 Man Booker winner follows a grieving widower into the sad depths of memory.

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.)

Now, while he's ostensibly working on a book about French painter Pierre Bonnard, Max mostly drinks and ruminates about his marriage, grief, his childhood, and memory.

"Really, one might almost live one's life over, if only one could make a sufficient effort of recollection," he muses.

Irish writer John Banville has a reputation as a brilliant stylist - people like to use the word "Nabokovian" in reference to his precisely worded books. His 14th novel, The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize last month, has so many beautifully constructed sentences that every few pages something cries out to be underlined.

Max joins a growing throng of Banville's arch and unreliable narrators. Formerly from the lowest strata of society, he's married money and turned himself into someone who uses words like "flocculent" and "crepitant."

While not a murderer like Freddie Montgomery in "The Book of Evidence," Max's misunderstanding of a conversation he overhears is what sets the tragedy in motion.

Elegantly worded, the novel still has some flaws. The "mystic twin" connection has been done and overdone, and the climactic events may leave readers scratching their heads and flipping back a few pages to see if they missed something. But those who love language will still want to dive into "The Sea."

Here's a test: Max and his wife go to visit an oncologist named Mr. Todd, and Max says, "This has to be a bad joke on the part of polyglot fate." If you (a) know that "tod" is the German word for death (I had to look it up) or (b) like such erudite word play, you'll love what Banville is doing here. If your reaction is, "what a pretentious jerk," you've summed up Max pretty well, but you might want to pick out a different book.

The grown-up Max also gets quite a lot wrong. He sketches harsh and indelible portraits of those around him. (Banville's descriptions of people, memories, and even things, are wonderful but often cruel.)

For example, Max flatters himself that his septuagenarian lesbian landlord has designs on him. Nor has he outgrown his bullying tendencies. He used to torture grasshoppers to delight Chloe; now he's nasty to his only daughter.

In addition to Chloe and her mother, wife Anna is the third Grace in Max's life. Anna, the daughter of a con artist, was a photographer in her youth. She went to hospital wards, searching out maimed patients to photograph. When Max sees them, "what was most striking to me about the people pictured was the calmly smiling way in which they displayed their wounds, their stitches, their suppurations."

Anna clearly had more ability than Max - an art snob who is dismissive of her "snapshots" - gives her credit for, since he was so unnerved by her photos that he stopped letting her take his picture. "What a desperate, beseeching smile I wore, a leer, a very leer."

The unflattering honesty stands in contrast to their marriage, which Max says worked as well as it did (barring a few infidelities) precisely because neither of them wanted to know the other all that well.

For Max, the sea comes to embody memory. That long-ago summer, as he stood waist-deep in the ocean, "the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps ... and I was lifted briefly and carried a little way toward the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened ... just another of the great world's shrugs of indifference."

But "The Sea" is ultimately not as cold as its counterpart. There's a sense of consolation at its conclusion that's anything but indifferent.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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