Memory and loss link up for a memorable juxtaposition in John Banville's hypnotic 14th novel, "The Sea," which recently won the 2005 Man Booker...

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“The Sea”
by John Banville
Knopf, 195 pp., $23

Memory and loss link up for a memorable juxtaposition in John Banville’s hypnotic 14th novel, “The Sea,” which recently won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

It wasn’t supposed to win. It wasn’t even supposed to come in second. The oddsmakers’ favorite was Julian Barnes’ “Arthur & George” (scheduled for U.S. publication in January). Runner-up was supposed to be previous Booker winner Kashuo Ishiguro (1989, “Remains of the Day”) for “Never Let Me Go.” Without equivocating, the right novel won.

“The Sea” is a stylish novel. Banville, former literary editor of the Irish Times, is a master of language skills. He offers word choices, alliterative phrases and vivid descriptions that seem to reinvent the use of the alphabet. Trees are “louring,” air is “cinereal,” hair is “horrent.” Walking on cobbles is like bouncing as “awkward as a half-inflated barrage balloon, buffeted by successive breath-robbing blows.” A seabird “flew up on sickle wings and turned with a soundless snap and plunged itself, a shutting chevron, into the sea’s unruly back.”

But if this brief novel were little more than style without substance, it would not be worth much attention except as an exercise in rhetoric. Banville is too fine a writer to provide just the sizzle. His simple story line and subtle plot structure blend with a mesmerizing narrative voice to reveal a complex memoir of love, grief and a “journey of surpassing but inexplicable importance.”

Max Morden, 60-ish art historian, is the first-person narrator. Two events — one recent, one from his past — overwhelm his life.

A year before the novel begins, his wife, Anna, dies. And in his childhood, at around age 11, he had a life-altering experience at a seaside retreat called The Cedars. These two traumatic episodes appear to relate to a haunting dream Max has of walking down a country road in a snowstorm. The dream propels him, a “lyreless Orpheus,” to return to the summer house to “live amidst the rubble of the past,” which beats inside him “like a second heart.”

As a child a half-century earlier in the Irish village of Ballyless, he meets the Grace family, and his “life is changed forever.” They are of a different class than his own family, which rents a chalet with “no ceilings, only the sloped undersides of the tarpapered roof.” People “in a proper house don’t mix with people from the chalets.”

But Max is seduced by the big black “motor car with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel.” He is even more attracted to the alluring Constance Grace and her 11-year-old daughter, Chloe. The father, Carlos, seems boorish. Chloe’s twin brother, Myles, with webbed feet, remains speechless during the entire novel.

Despite the class differences, the children bond throughout the summer. Max joins the family on languorous beachside picnics where Mrs. Grace appears as a “sprawling maja,” inviting licentious fantasies of both mother and daughter for the young Max. A game of chase evolves from the day of “licence and illicit invitation.”

These events are recalled as “revenant” occasions when Max returns to The Cedars in the present time. One of the strongest secondary characters in the novel is Colonel Blunden, a retiree who “plays the wireless and favours afternoon talk programmes” and makes frequent and lengthy trips to the lavatory in the hall. Max is certain he will go mad in these surroundings if he can’t find a way to understand why there are “moments when the past has a force so strong it seems one might be annihilated by it.”

As “The Sea” approaches its bombshell of an ending, Banville masterfully melds the past with the present, allowing Max to find strength in what remains behind.

Robert Allen Papinchak writes reviews, articles, and interviews for The Seattle Times and numerous national publications.