The Sea by John Banville – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

In this luminous novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife.

It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time.

What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the centre of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.

My Review

“In those endless October nights, lying side by side in the darkness, toppled statues of ourselves, we sought escape from an intolerable present in the only tense possible, the past, that is the faraway past.”

This is an old review from Goodreads that I am cross-posting to my blog. It was written in 2016.

The other week as I was chatting to my mum on the phone we got to talking about books. It’s a frequent topic of conversation between us. My mum is very much the reason that I am a lover of the written word. I can just about recall my very first visit to our local library as a little girl with her and the excitement I felt at being able to choose two books to bring home with me. Happily these days I can borrow twelve books at a time from my current local library! But I digress… As we were chatting I informed her that I had finally borrowed The Sea by John Banville. Her response, I’m paraphrasing here, essentially she informed me that she thought I would not like his writing style but she wished me good luck and she was looking forward to my opinions. Sounds ominous, right?

And so, like every good daughter, I wanted to prove my mother wrong……

Damn it, I hate it when she’s right!!!!!!

So I got back on the phone to my mum a few days later, tail between my legs…okay not really between my legs because I was joking earlier. I knew she’d be right and it doesn’t bother me. She’s my mum! She really does know me better then anyone. But anyway, back on the phone and we had a lovely rant civilised conversation discussing the complexities of the book. 

We both appreciated the talents of Mr Banville. His command of the English language is phenomenal! My mum may have called him a show off, yikes! However, I had to politely disagree with her there but purely because I think I’m a bit more pretentious than she is!! 

We both agreed that we felt he lacked something when it comes to storytelling. We are Irish. John Banville is Irish. And storytelling is innate to us as a people. It’s a common feature of Irish society. It’s in our blood. And especially so when it comes to our writers. And for some reason I think that John Banville’s eloquence and his gorgeously lyrical way of phrasing what he wants to say, somehow impacts negatively on his storytelling ability. His words are too perfectly formed into these short, and often breathtakingly beautiful, passages that somehow the greater picture is lost. As if you can’t see the forest for the trees. 

The Sea has a great premise. A man looking back on significant moments in his life; a story of loss, grief, family… All great subjects in my opinion. And I absolutely loved the disjointed nature of the different timelines used within the book. I thought the slowly unfurling storylines was a great plot device. But for whatever reason, the premise never fully delivered on a story, it didn’t feel like a truly rewarding read. 

I found that I could never completely connect emotionally with the story. Which seems peculiar because Max, the main character, is clearly experiencing deep emotion. Which led me to the opinion that John Banville truly is a poet in novelists clothing to paraphrase the old saying. I took so many notes when reading. I copied countless passages down and to me, they make for beautiful poetry. Taken singularly they inspire deep emotion within me but all written into this novel I felt his beautiful words were almost lost on me. I don’t know if anyone else has felt like this. It reminds me of a YA book I read some time ago, Lovely, Dark and Deep. An entirely different type of book but with the most beautiful prose within its pages and like The Sea, some intangible something held me back from truly loving it. I’ll post some of my favourite quotes and passages from The Sea at the end of this review.

There was quite a lot of controversy when this book won The Booker Prize in ’05. Many felt that Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel Never Let Me Go would have been a more suitable winner which I have to say I agree with as that book is phenomenal on so many levels. So I do have to question this as a winner because of the lack of pure emotional connection I had with the book… But what’s new? I have disagreed with the Booker prize winners more often than not. What can I say, I love to disagree with the critics!!

And so, after all that, would I actually recommend The Sea?

Absolutely! Go for it!!!

First off. It won the Booker prize so it’s always interesting to read them and formulate your own opinions about what passes for critically acclaimed modern literature. And a lot of fun to disagree with the result if you conclude as I did that this book wasn’t fully deserving!

But the main reason anyone should read this is for the writing. I really do think his command of English is breathtaking. And wholly natural. Frequently with critically acclaimed novels I find that authors tend to say things a million different ways just to show off that they can! The Luminaries was one of those books in my opinion. John Banville doesn’t do that, or at least he hides it better! Sometimes less is more. His purple prose is more subtle. It’s quieter. More haunting. It really does feel like you are reading art! And that is the resounding feeling I will take with me after reading this book. I feel like I’ve gone to some beautiful museum and been part of an interactive literary installation.

“Strange, is it not, the way they lodge in the mind, the seemingly inconsidered things?”

I’ll definitely read more John Banville in the future. And maybe another of his books will deliver on the storytelling aspect for me and then it truly will be an all time favourite.

Favourite Quotes and Passages

“So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future as the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in the field, watching for what was to come.”


“The kettle came to the boil and switched itself off and the seething water inside it settled down grumpily. I marvelled, not for the first time, at the cruel complacency of ordinary things. But no, not cruel, not complacent, only indifferent, as how could they be otherwise?

Henceforth I would have to address things as they are, not as I might imagine them, for this was a new version of reality.”


“It was a sumptuous, oh, truly a sumptuous Autumn day, all Byzantine coppers and golds under a Tiepolo sky of enamelled blue, the countryside all fixed and glassy, seeming not so much itself as its own reflection in the still surface of a lake.

It was the kind of day on which, latterly, the sun for me is the world’s fat eye looking on in rich enjoyment as I writhe in my misery.”


“Down here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect due to the salt in the air., perhaps, or the seaside climate in general.

I do not recall noticing it when I was young and staying in the Field. It is dense and at the same time hollow. It took me a long while, nights and nights, to identify what it reminds me of. It is like the silence that I knew in the sickrooms of my childhood, when I would lie in a fever, cocooned under a hot, moist mound of blankets, with the emptiness squeezing in on my eardrums like the air in a bathysphere.

Sickness in those days was a special place, a place apart, where no one else could enter, not the doctor with his shiver-inducing stethoscope or even my mother when she put her cool hand on my burning brow. It is a place like the place where I feel that I am now, miles from anywhere, and anyone.”


“But I did not really care, not deep down, deep past guilt and suchlike affects. Love, as we call it, has a fickle tendency to transfer itself, by a heartless, sidewise shift, from one bright object to a brighter, in the most inappropriate of circumstances.”


“Night, and everything so quiet, as if there were no one, not even myself. I cannot hear the sea, which on other nights rumbles and growls, now near and grating,meow afar and faint. I do not want to be alone like this. Why have you not come back to haunt me?”


4 thoughts on “The Sea by John Banville – Book Review

  1. Hello Éimhear. I totally agree with you. A poet in novelist’s clothing perfectly describes him. I’ve read a lot of his books, and some of them – as a friend of mine said – are over written. For a combination of beautiful English and great narrative drive, I would recommend Joseph O’Connor, or Dickens . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Over written is a great way to describe Banville’s writing. But I’m still curious to read more and the library has a plethora of titles once I get back there post vax.
      Still not gotten around to reading Joseph O’Connor yet, must get on that. Dickens is one of my all time favs. A Tale of Two Cities blew my mind as a 12 year old and I spent my following teenage years absorbing as much Dickens as I could.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s