REVIEW: THE SEA
A memory as dark and turbulent as the ocean...
THE SEA is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction that I sadly just found to be an empty and ultimately meaningless read.
HOW I RATED IT
2/5 In spite of being truly inspired by the beauty in Banville's writing, I just had too many issues with too many aspects of this novel to recommend it to anyone with similar tastes to myself.
This is the first and perhaps most important area in which THE SEA fell flat for me. The main character just wasn't someone I felt at all emotionally connected to even though the story is told through a near-continual stream of his intimate thoughts and memories. I am hesitant to share his name since I honestly do not know if it is a spoiler or not given that I don't think it's provided until about a quarter of the way into the book and even then there's a lot of weirdness about it (I'll just call him MC for review purposes). This was probably the least of my issues with him though. The author and even the character himself both seem to acknowledge that MC is not a good person. He's selfish, shallow, and just generally lacking in any sort of likability whatsoever. Because of how poorly he treats everyone around him and how judgmental he is even when he's not being outwardly obnoxious, I just couldn't connect with any aspect of him and I didn't really feel a lot of sympathy or empathy for what he was going through at any given moment which made me feel detached from basically everything going on in the story.
There are a whole host of side characters of note, but honestly none of them resonated with me either. It's not so much that they felt unrealistic, there are certainly people in the world that these characters resemble, but they are not the sort of people that are part of my life. It was also hard to tell if everyone was truly as self-centered and grotesque as the book describes them or if that is just the MC's jaded perspective. One thing I do want to make special mention of is that I felt pretty uncomfortable with the way that women were represented in this book and a little horrified with how the child characters were handled. These 10-12 year old kids aren't so much sexualized in any way (if anything they are given appropriately grubby descriptions), but they are very sexually aware. Maybe I just had a very sheltered childhood, but I can say with certainty that the thoughts going through my mind were nothing like MC's at that age. I am not accusing the author of anything, I just felt like this aspect of the book was needlessly perverse.
Honestly, I have no idea where this story even takes place. There are things mentioned that make me think it is set somewhere in England, but it could have just as easily been some other country. The geographic location doesn't matter too much though, because much of the setting is based around a sleepy seaside town that is very well developed and has an almost magical air to it. I would say the novel's ability to craft such a vivid locale is definitely one of it's stronger aspects and where the author's poetic prose really shines through the most. I probably would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it was just written about the place and not the people living in it.
Another area that didn't work for me was the overall tone of the book. Everything is conveyed through the cynical and jaded perspective of a man who I felt no connection to. At so many points, I wished I could just reach into the book, give him a good shake, and tell him to get over himself. I'm not sure if this was meant to be the point of the book or not and frankly, I'm not sure if this story really had any point at all other than to say "life is hard and people are selfish and then they die." There is the beautiful, poetic prose that dances across the pages that's juxtaposed by these grotesque depictions of characters that are all represented in an unconventionally sensual way (smell seems to be a prevalent sense for MC) and I felt like I was meant to find something profound in between it all, but I just did not.
This is a piece of literary fiction, so there isn't much actual plot to speak of since there's no quest to go on or mystery to solve or love story to tell. The entire book is all about the memory's of a man still coping with the loss of his wife (this isn't a spoiler, it's pretty much how things kick off) and sort of being stuck in his own past. His life's story is told in fragmented scenes that all bleed into each other in a disorienting stream of addled consciousness. There are no chapters, but the book is divided up into two parts. I am not sure if that means the book is meant to be read in two sittings, but there was no way I would have been able to do that. Because the narrative skips from one point in time to another, I found myself just putting it down in random spots when I'd had enough. Unfortunately, this was a 193 page slog for me, but I held out hope for a profound ending that never came. Instead, I felt that the ending was abrupt and empty.
The cover has a beautiful, painted design that's marred by one of those "stickers" that isn't really a sticker, but rather part of the cover. The sticker boasted some kind of award or another for the book, but it's really just an insult to the cover designers to slap something on top of their hard work that they clearly didn't intend to be there. The overall interior is pretty basic and strangely bare bones. There's no author's forward or any of the usual trappings of a novel, but I don't know if I consider that either a good or a bad thing, I guess just don't go in expecting anything special with fonts, formatting, or bonus content.
It may be worth disclosing that I don't generally read a lot of literary fiction and I tend to prefer plot-driven books although I don't mind a well-done character study sometimes. I did also go in hoping this would be a nice summer-themed read and while much of the story is indeed centered around summer, don't go in expecting good vibes with this one. If you are the type of reader that loves to dive into the thoughts of a deep, ponderous, and morally bereft character, then this one might be for you (especially if you enjoy really pretty writing). If you are more like me and want characters that are more likeable and relatable as well as a story that delivers some kind of deeper meaning, then I'd probably look elsewhere.