The Sea, by John Banville

This 2005 work is a beautifully written novel in which nothing happens, and yet everything happens. It is about one man, art historian Max Morden, as he recalls two incidents from his past. First, his poor youth when he met the wealthy Graces at a seaside resort. And then his maturity when he lost his wife Anna to cancer. And we do not realize until the end that what links these two significant events in his life is death.

The entire novel concerns these memories, as he revisits the seaside resort of Ballyless, Ireland, fifty years later. He stays at the same house in which the Graces stayed one summer, and his stream of consciousness memory flits back and forth from the present to both that youthful summer and the later harrowing months in which his wife died.

The summer-house, called the Cedars, is run in the present by the elderly Miss Vavasour, who has an unclear relationship with one resident, the Colonel, a relationship which Max thinks he interrupts. But he is more into his memories of that summer in which, at age ten, he met the stout, elderly Carlo Grace; his beautiful wife Connie, on whom Max develops a crush; their twin children Myles and Chloe, both Max’s age; and Rose, a young woman who is their governess.

Max has returned to the Cedars to try to recover from the loss of his wife. At first, we think it is because he has fond memories of that summer and the Grace family—such as Mrs. Grace adjusting her body to let him view her panties—and that reliving those childhood moments of happiness will ease his sadness. But eventually we realize it is to understand that summer that he returns. For it was just as unsettling to him as was the loss of his wife.

As the present feeds upon the past, and as the memories flood together, the reader is rarely lost. Except, he does not know where the novel is going. It seems to be a memory novel about Max, but then it turns out to be rather different when a surprise comes. The surprise works, and we look at both Max and the novel in a different way. We see that this is a work about life itself, rather than about Max’s life. And it is more about death than it is about life, and the mysteriousness of death that is part of life. And equally so, it is about memory. About Max’s memory versus reality.

The weakest part of the novel, perhaps because it is the least developed, is Max’s relationship with his daughter Claire, whom he bows to at the end, as an old man, no longer able to resist her. But also difficult to relate to is Anna’s picking up photography in her final months, as if by preserving reality she is holding on to it. It seems to be two cases of Banville fleshing out Max’s life but not extensively so, because his life is not the point of the tale. The point is the impact on him of two dramatic events.

The sea of the title is ever-present, drawing these characters to the resort. And it plays a significant role at the end. But it hovers more as a presence than as a threat. It is most symbolic on the final page, where Max says that it offered a gentle swell. “I was lifted briefly and carried a little way towards the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened.” Thus, whatever high drama we confront, we adjust to it. And life goes on. It is just “another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”

There is also a perplexing line, the last: “…and it was as if I were walking into the sea.” This is Max as he follows his nurse back into the house. Does it simply mean that he is adjusting to the loss of his wife, as above? Or does it refer to a motivation of Chloe? To be further studied…

But, mainly, there is the drama of the ending. It is shocking, but to me it is not clear. What does it mean? It centers on Max’s childhood experience. But it is less concerned with a loss of innocence than one might expect, and is more about grief, a grief that echoes Max’s loss of his wife.

This climax suggests that the Grace family is acting out a private drama, a drama that Max is not meant to see, but a drama that Rose is willing to share with him. This seems to be crystallized in a late paragraph, after Max has witnessed death, when he writes: “And I thought, too, of the day of the picnic and of her [Rose] sitting behind me on the grass and looking where I was avidly looking and seeing what was not meant for me at all.”

Perhaps she is still willing at the end, after she has witnessed a sexual episode between Max and Chloe. And wants Max to realize the people he is dealing with. But what is he dealing with? It seems to be a hypersexualized Chloe at ten. And a mute Myles. Who are they? And how significant is the earlier reference to the webbing between Myles’ toes?

Also significant is the sentence: “After all, why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale’s demand for a neat closing twist?” Which refers to the structure of the novel more than its content. And the entire novel demonstrates that Banville is aware of structure.

For example, the dramatic surprise in the story line is followed by another surprise, centering on issues of identity. First, one person becomes another person, and then makes a confession that raises an issue of sexual identity. Now, this does explain more than one earlier dramatic scene. But it also suggests that not only was Max’s youthful sexuality confused, but so was his understanding of what he witnessed back then.

To sum up, this is a deep and satisfying novel, but one that requires extra attention from the reader. It also requires patience to appreciate the rich language, the alternating story lines, and the character depth that is hidden beneath the surface. It is understandable why this novel earned the Man Booker Award, and yet why the author considered the award a surprise, believing his novel to be pure art, wheereas previous awards have gone to more commercial, more popular novels.

This definitely encourages me to read further novels by Banville. He explores the interiors of his characters and the major issues we all face, especially that of death. Plus he has a rich style. No wonder he says he writes only a few paragraphs at a sitting, compared to pages when he is writing as Benjamin Black. (May, 2015)

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

This is a quiet, heartfelt novel from 2008. It tells two stories, one by Roseanne Clear McNulty, who is one hundred years old and confined to a mental hospital, and the other by Dr. Grene, who is a psychiatrist at that hospital. Roseanne is the main character, and she is writing a secret memoir to help herself understand the unhappy past that led to her confinement. Dr. Grene is writing his own journal about his search to learn whether or not Roseanne needs to be under his care in the new hospital being built for his patients.

And their mutual search for the truth keeps the reader involved, with Roseanne’s search seeming to be more emotional, and Dr. Grene’s more intellectual. Indeed, an underlying theme of the novel is the tension in their revolutionary Irish society among one person’s idea of the truth, another person’s idea, and the actual truth.

Roeseanne sums up her search for the truth about her past in this way, which mirrors the author’s theme: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.”

This search for truth among many versions applies most particularly to Roseanne’s memory versus that of the local priest Father Gaunt, regarding what happened to her father when he died, as well as to her baby, whose death she may or may not have been the cause.

It is no small achievement that, except for hospital visits that the doctor makes to Roseanne, all the events here take place in the past, and yet we read on eagerly to learn the elusive truth of that past. What did happen in Roseanne’s youth? How did her farther die? How did her marriage dissolve? How did she become confined? And yet when we do learn the major truth about Roseanne and her baby, I was not entirely convinced. For me, it is too much a surprise for its own sake. It undoubtedly must have seemed to the author to be an intellectually perfect conclusion to tie his loose ends together. But I resisted accepting it. It was not for me emotionally satisfying. And it seemed to belong to another novel, given its tenor.

Roseanne, however, is a richly conceived character who has lived an interesting life. She grows up during the Irish troubles, with one faction of Irishmen fighting another in their search for independence. At the age of 12, she is confronted by the murder of an Irregular; and when her father dies, she denies reports that he was killed because he was a policeman. She grows up in a world of denial, in an atmosphere of family trust and political betrayal, as well as a world of masculine cruelty in the name of patriotism.

Religious tension also plays a role in this novel. And the Catholic Church, in the guise of Father Gaunt, comes closest to being the villain in the novel. For Roseanne is a Presbyterian, and a beautiful one whose father is dead and mother confined. So, to avoid her being a temptation to Sligo boys, Father Gaunt says, he matches her to a Catholic, Tom McNulty—despite Tom’s mother opposing her son’s marriage to a Protestant. And then, when the priest spots Roseanne in the company of another man, an Irregular (rebels the Church opposes), he interprets the worst, tells the McNulty family, and arranges an annulment—on the false basis of nymphomania. Which leaves Roseanne alone in a decrepit cottage at the edge of the sea.

Until she becomes pregnant. Which raises another question. When the child is born, it suddenly disappears. How? Why? The explanation, a throw-away line near the end, is not convincing.

In the continuous unfolding of Roseanne’s tragic life, author Barry not only deepens our sympathy for Roseanne but also writes with a beautiful but simple style, appropriate for her painful search among elusive memories. Which began with her innocence and her inability to understand what truly happened back then. And our sympathy is furthered by the doctor’s effort to understand her past, as well as his own responsibility for the present.

The novel works so well because these are two very sympathetic characters, and the reader easily identifies with them, including with a doctor who wants to learn the truth about Roseanne as much as she does herself. For he feels guilty that he has not paid sufficient to her and to why she is in his institution. And senses that his research into her world of rebellion and contradiction will lead to a final truth.

What makes this work so convincing and so moving is that Roseanne believes what she remembers is true, even as her memories change, even as she contradicts herself and does not realize her contradictions. And even as the doctor relates to us different conclusions, both by the priest and by the McNulty family, among others—with some of those conclusions being true, but others presented as facts to achieve a purpose, such as her confinement. It is a distortion of reality that mirrors the distortion on another plane in Irish society, as the political struggle grows more complex.

That the reader learns the true reality but that only one of the characters does so is a disappointment. Especially since the one who does not is Roseanne, the main character, the one we identify with, the one we are most concerned about. This is perhaps why the judges, in offering the Costa Book Award, said that the novel won despite the ending. That the beauty of its style and the richness of its human understanding were sufficient.

This novel inspires me to read more of Barry’s works, especially the one about Eneas McNulty, who plays a minor role here. Yes, minor, despite a significant encounter with Roseanne. One might ask, in fact, if their relationship has more significance in that other work, for it seems here more a matter of convenience for the author. Just as another convenience regards the explanation of why Dr. Grene is at the same institution as Roseanne.

Barry almost won the Man Booker with another novel on a similar theme. I can understand why, and will pursue more of this author so concerned about truth and innocence, reality and memory, and transgression and conscience. (December, 2014)