These Beautiful Depths: The Sea by John Banville
If one were to say The Sea is, for the most part, a lyrical examination of memory, it would be hard to poke holes in their statement. After all, this book is mostly a man thinking not just about what he remembers, but how/why he remembers what he remembers, and how that ties him to the past and where that leaves him now. It's contemplative, it's slow, it's not a grab-you-by-your-seat kind of experience. However, if you take off your gloves to do a little work and attune your ears to the beauty of language, you'll find that John Banville's Booker Prize-winning novel is so much more than the above, and has enough layers to make even the most ostentatious of wedding cakes collapse with jealousy.
This little gem of a book (my paperback comes in at 195 pages) starts out gorgeously, and had me perked up from the first sentence: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." My first thought when I dove into these pages was wondering why the hell I hadn't been urged at gunpoint to read Banville before. Having worked at a couple bookstores, I had heard the name, but only muttered, and not with any passion or conviction. It was only the release of his latest work, The Blue Guitar, which I saw front and center at an indie bookshop on the Upper West Side, that I decided to look deeper into his oeuvre. Naturally, the winner of the Man Booker Prize, a relatively short and well-reviewed novel, seemed like a great place to start. I was not mistaken.
Our narrator, Max Morden, is an Irish widower, grief-stricken in his middle age, and his story is really an interweaving of three different segments of time in his life: the present, his adolescence, and the period around his wife's death. What I found most impressive, on top of Banville's gift with words (and what a cultivated gift it is), was the way Max could slip from his current bereaved state where he is revisiting a beach house he frequented as a child into the mindset of his demure self at that youthful age with all the sights, smells, and other sensations so carefully recalled, and then just as abruptly drop us into the hospital room where his wife spent her final days. Not an easy trick for a novelist to pull off, sliding around time so effortlessly.
I did find the need for the occasional trip to the dictionary, but his inventiveness with words that I already knew (or semi-knew) never seemed excessive. Banville toys with what so many of the best stylists do: the use of an unknown word in a slightly off-kilter way. Rather than looking up a definition and seeing that, yes, the exact definition was utilized in the prose, you get a different flavor than the usual; you see a fresh word utilized in an original way, and what a treat that is for those of us who've fallen for language, particularly with love for the constantly deceptive harshness (with brief stints of euphony) of our beloved English.
The Sea ends strongly, wrapping up various plot points and miscellany in a torrential fifteen page burst. A fair complaint would be about how suddenly and brilliantly the novel does indeed tie together, since the rate of its cohesion exceeds the meandering nature and pace of the previous 180 pages. It "picks up" as one might say, and the way the novel concludes, even with its room for ambiguity, does feel rather forced on, if only for the speed at which it does so.
Regardless of this increased pump in pressure, the book was marvelously slick and (dare I use the overused word) elegiac. There's grief in these pages, there's tragedy and lovesick stuttering; there's heartbreak, youthful eroticism and the inevitable confusion to follow, and, above all else, there's the feeling of the strange tide, rolling up the sandy banks to grab you, the unsuspecting reader, and pull you back out into its blue depths, into its beauty.