John Banville is a magnificent prose writer. I loved his earlier book Birchwood, so thought I would try out The Sea, which won him the Booker Prize in 2005. I liked it, but did feel a little bit disappointed.
The writing was still beautiful. The blurb on the cover from the Daily Telegraph was not an overstatement: “They are like hits of some delicious drug, these sentences.” I really enjoyed the descriptions, the rhythm of the prose, the unusual words, the constant freshness of the language.
The characters and plot, though, left me a little cold. In fact, it’s been a few months since I read the book and already I can’t remember much about the plot, which is a bad sign. I wasn’t very interested either in the elderly narrator’s current life or in the childhood reminiscence which make up the majority of the book. At times it is a moving meditation on loss and the passing of time, but I found myself wishing it would go somewhere. The “revelations” at the end of the book didn’t really add much for me either. It ended up being a beautiful ride to nowhere in particular.
I still plan to read more books by John Banville, but to anyone wanting to try him out for the first time I would definitely recommend Birchwood over The Sea.
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Unfortunately, The Sea was my introduction to John Banville’s writing and it didn’t make me want to read past page 40… or (after a couple of similar experiences) maintain my habit of reading Man Booker prize novels.
However, on the basis of your recommendation, if I see Birchwood I may well give his writing another go.
Cheers, Andrew. All the best.
Yes, it’s funny, the Booker prize novels are not always a writer’s best work. I hated Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, for example, but much prefer some of his other, non-winning, books such as Atonement. Hope you like Birchwood!