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*Winner of the Man Booker Prize*

A luminous novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory. 


In this “extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory" (USA Today), 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 center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.

Review

“Remarkable. . . . The power and strangeness and piercing beauty of [The Sea is] a wonder.” —The Washington Post Book World

“With his fastidious wit and exquisite style, John Banville is the heir to Nabokov. . . . The Sea [is] his best novel so far.” —The Sunday Telegraph

“A gem. . . . [The sea] is a presence on every page, its ceaseless undulations echoing constantly in the cadences of the prose. This novel shouldn''t simply be read. It needs to be heard, for its sound is intoxicating. . . . A winning work of art.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Sea offers an extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory. . . . Undeniably brilliant.” —USA Today

About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. The author of thirteen previous novels, he has been the recipient of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

IThey departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone. The name of the house is the Cedars, as of old. A bristling clump of those trees, monkey-brown with a tarry reek, their trunks nightmarishly tangled, still grows at the left side, facing across an untidy lawn to the big curved window of what used to be the living room but which Miss Vavasour prefers to call, in landladyese, the lounge. The front door is at the opposite side, opening on to a square of oil-stained gravel behind the iron gate that is still painted green, though rust has reduced its struts to a tremulous filigree. I am amazed at how little has changed in the more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here. Amazed, and disappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for reasons that are obscure to me, since why should I desire change, I who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past? I wonder why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a pebble-dashed windowless white end-wall to the road; perhaps in former times, before the railway, the road ran in a different orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the front door, anything is possible. Miss V. is vague on dates but thinks a cottage was first put up here early in the last century, I mean the century before last, I am losing track of the millennia, and then was added on to haphazardly over the years. That would account for the jumbled look of the place, with small rooms giving on to bigger ones, and windows facing blank walls, and low ceilings throughout. The pitchpine floors sound a nautical note, as does my spindle-backed swivel chair. I imagine an old seafarer dozing by the fire, landlubbered at last, and the winter gale rattling the window frames. Oh, to be him. To have been him.When I was here all those years ago, in the time of the gods, the Cedars was a summer house, for rent by the fortnight or the month. During all of June each year a rich doctor and his large, raucous family infested it—we did not like the doctor’s loud-voiced children, they laughed at us and threw stones from behind the unbreachable barrier of the gate—and after them a mysterious middle-aged couple came, who spoke to no one, and grimly walked their sausage dog in silence at the same time every morning down Station Road to the strand. August was the most interesting month at the Cedars, for us. The tenants then were different each year, people from England or the Continent, the odd pair of honeymooners whom we would try to spy on, and once even a fit-up troupe of itinerant theatre people who were putting on an afternoon show in the village’s galvanised-tin cinema. And then, that year, came the family Grace.The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel. Books with bleached and dog-eared covers were thrown carelessly on the shelf under the sportily raked back window, and there was a touring map of France, much used. The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside, downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen. Even his feet, I noticed, were brown on the insteps; the majority of fathers in my experience were fish-belly white below the collar-line. He set his tumbler—ice-blue gin and ice cubes and a lemon slice—at a perilous angle on the roof of the car and opened the passenger door and leaned inside to rummage for something under the dashboard. In the unseen upstairs of the house the girl laughed again and gave a wild, warbling cry of mock-panic, and again there was the sound of scampering feet. They were playing chase, she and the voiceless other. The man straightened and took his glass of gin from the roof and slammed the car door. Whatever it was he had been searching for he had not found. As he turned back to the house his eye caught mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually did, at once arch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, a conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost, as if this moment that we, two strangers, adult and boy, had shared, although outwardly without significance, without content, even, nevertheless had meaning. His eyes were an extraordinary pale transparent shade of blue. He went back inside then, already talking before he was through the door. “Damned thing,” he said, “seems to be . . .” and was gone. I lingered a moment, scanning the upstairs windows. No face appeared there.That, then, was my first encounter with the Graces: the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps, and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling through the front teeth that I have begun to do recently. Deedle deedle deedle, it goes, like a dentist’s drill. My father used to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the corridor Colonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the afternoon talk programmes, the ones in which irate members of the public call up to complain about villainous politicians and the price of drink and other perennial irritants. “Company,” he says shortly, and clears his throat, looking a little abashed, his protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though I have issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard to picture him there in his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape and hands clasped behind that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man itself, from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to the tip of his conical skull. He has his hair cut every Saturday morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quarter given, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed leathery ears stick out, they look as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge. I can hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what they say. I may go mad here. Deedle deedle. Later that day, the day the Graces came, or the following one, or the one following that, I saw the black car again, recognised it at once as it went bounding over the little humpbacked bridge that spanned the railway line. It is still there, that bridge, just beyond the station. Yes, things endure, while the living lapse. The car was heading out of the village in the direction of the town, I shall call it Ballymore, a dozen miles away. The town is Ballymore, this village is Ballyless, ridiculously, perhaps, but I do not care. The man with the beard who had winked at me was at the wheel, saying something and laughing, his head thrown back. Beside him a woman sat with an elbow out of the rolled-down window, her head back too, pale hair shaking in the gusts from the window, but she was not laughing only smiling, that smile she reserved for him, sceptical, tolerant, languidly amused. She wore a white blouse and sunglasses with white plastic rims and was smoking a cigarette. Where am I, lurking in what place of vantage? I do not see myself. They were gone in a moment, the car’s sashaying back-end scooting around a bend in the road with a spurt of exhaust smoke. Tall grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman’s hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreaming stillness.I walked down Station Road in the sunlit emptiness of afternoon. The beach at the foot of the hill was a fawn shimmer under indigo. At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the world reduced to a few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky. I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this the least of them. As I approached I heard a regular rusty screeching sound. A boy of my age was draped on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar, propelling himself with one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter circle over the gravel. He had the same straw-pale hair as the woman in the car and the man’s unmistakable azure eyes. As I walked slowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered, rather, he stuck the toe of his plimsoll into the gravel to stop the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression of hostile enquiry. It was the way we all looked at each other, we children, on first encounter. Behind him I could see all the way down the narrow garden at the back of the house to the diagonal row of trees skirting the railway line—they are gone now, those trees, cut down to make way for a row of pastel-coloured bungalows like dolls’ houses—and beyond, even, inland, to where the fields rose and there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorse bushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with scrolled white clouds. Suddenly, startlingly, the boy pulled a grotesque face at me, crossing his eyes and letting his tongue loll on his lower lip. I walked on, conscious of his mocking eye following me.

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4 out of 54 out of 5
969 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

Mac Tipton
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
delivers in the end
Reviewed in the United States on April 5, 2016
This was a very unusual book for me. It''s my second Banville, having read "Ancient Light" recently. What I found unusual about it was that it was a bit laborious, a little slow to develop. Banville''s prose is poetic and carefully composed, so it makes for an... See more
This was a very unusual book for me. It''s my second Banville, having read "Ancient Light" recently. What I found unusual about it was that it was a bit laborious, a little slow to develop. Banville''s prose is poetic and carefully composed, so it makes for an interesting reading experience. Still, like most readers, I need a story, a conflict, or some action to become involved in.

What was unusual was that the book took so long to grab me. The dramatic, perhaps shocking, events of the last 50 pages help to make sense of all that preceded it. Be patient, dear reader, and the book will deliver in due time. Now knowing the ending (which I will not give even a hint of) I look forward to one day re-reading this novel, looking for any hints of foreshadowing of the ending. And I look forward to reading more Banville. Next, I think I''ll tackle "Eclipse". Thanks for reading my review.
90 people found this helpful
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Lorraine A. Davis
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
poetical
Reviewed in the United States on March 1, 2020
Not sure poetical is a word. He constructs poetical sentences that describe things. Each description gives one a visceral sense of what is being described- the quality of the sea air at a certain time of day, the way light reflects off surfaces, how something smells... I... See more
Not sure poetical is a word. He constructs poetical sentences that describe things. Each description gives one a visceral sense of what is being described- the quality of the sea air at a certain time of day, the way light reflects off surfaces, how something smells... I took me a few pages to get into the rhythm of his writing, but once I was there, it really takes over. And the way time slides in and out... wave breaks rushing up the shore and receding at odd angles. I am smitten with his prose.
21 people found this helpful
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BC Gornick
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Somber tale - spoilers included! Beware!
Reviewed in the United States on October 1, 2018
I found this tale of an aged man mourning the recent loss of his wife while reminiscing about the past, in particular, the family he’d known as boy, slow paced but not in a bad way. It unfolds and with it his memories, his failures, his old longings and many mistakes.... See more
I found this tale of an aged man mourning the recent loss of his wife while reminiscing about the past, in particular, the family he’d known as boy, slow paced but not in a bad way. It unfolds and with it his memories, his failures, his old longings and many mistakes.

I thought his musings on his relationship with his wife interesting. I felt myself reaching for meaning alongside the narrator. Looking for answers and coming up with nothing save for, perhaps, a wary indifference seeping up and out of the world.

It’s left me feeling not quite satisfied, however and thus the three stars rather than four, which a book tackling such subject matter may have gotten from me.
——-spoiler below ——-

So what holds it back? I think the demise of the twins cane so suddenly and inexplicably that it seemed almost forced into the story for impact’s sake alone. I never got that they’d be so unhappy as to do such a thing and maybe it’s more my fault for not accepting that such strange and dramatic things happen and leave little to no forewarning or explanation. Still, it didn’t quite work for me.

A fine story overall with some interesting vocabulary and descriptions, but nothing astounding.
20 people found this helpful
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Cathryn Conroy
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
This Is an Exquisite Book About the Meaning of Time and the Fleeting Tricks of Memory
Reviewed in the United States on June 2, 2021
Taking place at a seaside resort in Ireland, this Booker Prize-winning novel by John Banville is as much about time—past, present, and future—as it is about the sea. It''s about memories of the past, the tricks and ravages of those memories, the ache of the present, and the... See more
Taking place at a seaside resort in Ireland, this Booker Prize-winning novel by John Banville is as much about time—past, present, and future—as it is about the sea. It''s about memories of the past, the tricks and ravages of those memories, the ache of the present, and the hope of the future.

Mourning the death of his wife, Anna, middle-aged Max Morden is besieged with memories of a summer spent by the sea. While his family stayed in a rundown three-room cottage with an outhouse and no electricity, Max made friends the summer he was 11 years old with the Grace family and their twin children Chloe and Myles, who were staying in a beautiful home called the Cedars. Max thought of the family as divinities, godlike. But that summer was not idyllic in the least. Something horrific happened, which is driving Max to ruminate on it half a century later. Now as a grieving widower, these memories are so vivid that they entice him to return to the sea and stay in the Cedars, which has become a rooming house.

This short, brilliantly-written novel explores the facets of grief, the meaning of memory, the fear of death, and hope for the future. The writing, which is close to stream of consciousness (but not quite), is exquisite with almost every sentence shining like a sparkling gem.

This is a cerebral book. There is no fast-paced plot, no twists and turns that will keep you reading past your bedtime. Instead, it should be read slowly and savored for its subtle message and insightful meaning.
6 people found this helpful
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TashaMariaTromer
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
JOHN BANVILLE''S NOVEL ''THE SEA'' IS INDEED A WINNER!
Reviewed in the United States on February 19, 2018
After becoming obsessed by the unforgettable movie made from this book, I still couldn''t get enough of this story. I wanted to know more. This original novel by John Banville did the trick, answering my remaining questions about some aspects of the film that were open to... See more
After becoming obsessed by the unforgettable movie made from this book, I still couldn''t get enough of this story. I wanted to know more. This original novel by John Banville did the trick, answering my remaining questions about some aspects of the film that were open to interpretation. It''s a glorious story about first loves and last. Besides narrative complexity, the author has a really rich vocabularly.You will be changed.
25 people found this helpful
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Mosey
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Quality writing
Reviewed in the United States on December 16, 2020
The writing is superlative. Descriptions, insights into character, the theme of an elderly person revisiting places important to his childhood to bring some synthesis of understanding to his life is part of a universal human journey. That being said, Max as a... See more
The writing is superlative. Descriptions, insights into character, the theme of an elderly person revisiting places important to his childhood to bring some synthesis of understanding to his life is part of a universal human journey.

That being said, Max as a main character is hard to identify with for the most part. He is not proud of his life, we as readers do not find him admirable,and his revelations of of his childhood are very unique to himself rather than relatable.

The book can be difficult to read. The writing is dense with allusion , description, and layers of memory. On the other hand, A reader cannot help but be stunned by the author’s magnificent writing .

There is a bit of a mystery in the way the story is revealed, and that kept my interest. Also, I believe, there is some universal truth and understanding to be gleaned from Max’s life, in the end.
6 people found this helpful
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Ann-Marie Carlson
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Book Club book
Reviewed in the United States on September 14, 2020
I did not enjoy this book. The main character was not a hero or likeable. The dissertation.. of each minute event went on and on and no real story line - other than him reliving detail by detail (what a memory) of a portion of his younger life. I read this only because... See more
I did not enjoy this book. The main character was not a hero or likeable. The dissertation.. of each minute event went on and on and no real story line - other than him reliving detail by detail (what a memory) of a portion of his younger life. I read this only because was a book club pick...my opinion.
7 people found this helpful
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Peter B
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
The Sea
Reviewed in the United States on August 20, 2012
A middle-aged man loses his wife to cancer. Saddened but not distraught, he returns to the village by the sea where his family spent their holidays when he was a child to deal with his loss. He reminisces in the form of this book. This is a difficult book to... See more
A middle-aged man loses his wife to cancer. Saddened but not distraught, he returns to the village by the sea where his family spent their holidays when he was a child to deal with his loss. He reminisces in the form of this book.

This is a difficult book to assess. First, it must be said that the author is a true craftsman. Sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph will leave you smiling and frequently in awe. The only "modern" book that I have read in my lifetime with comparable prose was "The French Lieutenant''s Woman" by John Fowles lo those many years ago. His vocabulary and sentence structure suggest that every word was carefully selected and the sentence constructed with great care; it is impossible to believe that these words just flowed effortlessly. The problem, if that is the word, is that after a time the actual story begins to wear on you; it becomes overly pedantic. The protagonist is a man given to introspection not action. It''s a bit like the fine film "My Dinner with Andre" only longer. The bottom line; if you are plot driven the story may become mundane. If you can be satisfied reading prose that comes close to being other-worldly, then by all means read it. In reflecting on my own thoughts, I''ll probably read a mystery or two and then sit down with another of Mr. Banville''s books because the prose is too special to leave alone.
39 people found this helpful
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Top reviews from other countries

Declan Henry
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good book
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 15, 2016
I consider myself a well-educated man but I defy anybody to read a John Banville novel and not have to make a few trips to the dictionary. He certainly has an expansive vocabulary at his disposal. He reminded me of Francis Mac Manus – an Irish writer long since dead. Mac...See more
I consider myself a well-educated man but I defy anybody to read a John Banville novel and not have to make a few trips to the dictionary. He certainly has an expansive vocabulary at his disposal. He reminded me of Francis Mac Manus – an Irish writer long since dead. Mac Manus, too, used a pretty impressive vocabulary in his novels (I’ve read all thirteen of them) but his vocabulary appeared to blend in naturally to the text. Banville, however, uses archaic or technical words for effect, probably knowing that the reader may become stuck in the process. John Banville has often been described as a ‘writer’s writer’. From his interviews, it seems he has a healthy regard for his writing ability and has referred to some fellow writers as being ‘middlebrow’ in their literary offerings. What he would have thought of Mac Manus, I have no idea – nor do I know his views about fellow contemporary Irish writers. The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, is about Max Morden, a retired art historian grieving for his wife who has died of cancer. Her death has rekindled bad memories from his youth when, during one summer, two of his friends (a girl who he had a crush on and her twin brother) were tragically drowned in the seaside resort town where he and his parents were holidaying. To ease his grief and to reconcile with the past, Max decides to go back to the seaside town (named Ballyless) and stay for a few weeks in a guesthouse that he much frequented during his childhood. The novel is full of witty observations, reflections and philosophical mutterings, along with many twists and turns – swaying back and forth between the current day and memories going back fifty years. The whole story is wonderfully crafted, extremely well told and is paced beautifully throughout. Is it a great story? Not quite. It''s a good story though. Ultimately, I enjoyed it but it''s certainly not the most cheerful book I have ever read. This is essentially a novel about grief, so yes there are times when the reader will get a bit fed up. I know I did, and on two occasions over a ten-day period, I placed it aside for a day or two before resuming. Whether it was intentional or not, the novel stirred up in me a range of emotions, not uncommon with grief, so there were times when I felt sad, angry and tired. Having said that, I also laughed (sometimes out loud) at the Irish humour used in his character descriptions. I have just ordered the DVD of the 2013 film, based on the book, which stars Ciarán Hinds and Charlotte Rampling. It will be interesting to see how the film matches up to the book.
15 people found this helpful
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Traveller
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Hard to find any sympathy with characters
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 14, 2021
Typical modern novel, like a sack of jigsaw pieces but no picture. Each time you read, you pick out some pieces and try to put them together. Hopefully by the end the picture emerges, with this book, so well written, but I can only say, So What?
3 people found this helpful
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old joanna
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Grieving Max returns to the seaside of his childhood.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 23, 2016
Max has been recently widowed, and returns to the holiday place of his childhood, looking back at his life and his childhood summers by the sea. The writing style is poetic and rich, indeed, I can not remember when I have had to refer to the dictionary quite so often in a...See more
Max has been recently widowed, and returns to the holiday place of his childhood, looking back at his life and his childhood summers by the sea. The writing style is poetic and rich, indeed, I can not remember when I have had to refer to the dictionary quite so often in a book. The memories from childhood for me were the better bits of the book. Interspersed with Max in the present, and Max with his wife and daughter. The landscape, especially by the sea, is painted beautifully, as is the intensity of the lonely little boy. I found that the denseness of the vocabulary felt rather like the whole thing had been overworked, it disturbed the flow.
3 people found this helpful
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Dr. Trevor G. Stammers
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Rapture
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 16, 2018
A rapturously written novel of loss and love. Some of the crafting of individual sentences is exquisite. So pleased a friend recommended this at a time when my father is dying. The conversation in the kitchen in the early part of the book is so accurate in the embarrassment...See more
A rapturously written novel of loss and love. Some of the crafting of individual sentences is exquisite. So pleased a friend recommended this at a time when my father is dying. The conversation in the kitchen in the early part of the book is so accurate in the embarrassment we have in talking about the fact we are dying.
3 people found this helpful
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Neil Richardson
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Everybody is right about ''The Sea''
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 2, 2008
This is my first Banville, and I take the point made by several other reviewers that it''s probably a more rewarding experience to read ''The Sea'' after some of his earlier work, so as to familiarise oneself with his style. And this is the great pivotal point- his style. I...See more
This is my first Banville, and I take the point made by several other reviewers that it''s probably a more rewarding experience to read ''The Sea'' after some of his earlier work, so as to familiarise oneself with his style. And this is the great pivotal point- his style. I think it has a real Marmite factor- love it or hate it, or in fact some combination of the two. At times, I found myself nodding appreciatively with how powerful his vignettes were- for example, the kiss in the cinema, the hairwashing scene and the part where the main character flips out while watching a nature documentary (none of these are spoilers, by the way). But an equal number of times I clocked myself shaking my head in annoyance with how deliberate, artful and writerly his prose is. People speak of his writing as being like poetry, but isn''t that a genre category error? We''re reading a novel here, aren''t we? And call me conventional, but bedecking virtually every single sentence with some kind of simile doesn''t do much for pacing or plot. Overall, if you like impressionistic, modernist literature in the tradition of Virginia Woolf, and you prefer reflections, feelings and sensations, then you will love this. As an oblique discussion on the isolating nature of grief it''s compelling. On the other hand, if you like highly developed and intriguing plotting, three-dimensional and sympathetic characterisation, some appreciation of motive and real relationships, then forget it. To be honest, the increasing misanthropy and solipsism of the main character started to really grate on me. He seemed to barely regard other people as actual entities, and only functions in his own tortured process of recollection, regret and despair. A much better book is the similarly titled ''The Sea, the Sea'' by Iris Murdoch, which also won the Booker prize, and is also about a writer confronting his past as it collides with his present.
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