As readers accustomed to a beginning, middle and end, and characters that remain consistent across a few hundred pages, we often forget that human beings are complex creatures. A writer’s challenge is to distil those complexities into the written word and therefore create a truthful, perhaps even universal, story. But Banville sees that task as too large (indeed, it is probably impossible). Instead, he starts with form: how to make the appearance of the words work for the story itself. By deliberately choosing to tell this story through his protagonist’s memory and a few images of the present day, Banville acknowledges that we are nothing if not a sum of our experiences. He knows that while we think the present is the most relevant time frame to us, actually it is our past that has shaped and continues to develop who we are. Banville makes this argument not in the story of his novel but between the lines – simply because of the way he writes it.
On top of that, the art historian protagonist through whose experience we feel the loss and love that define the novel would naturally appreciate beauty of the form. And Banville delivers. The Sea’s delicious prose wraps gently against the reader’s ankles at first. It is an invitation to the protagonist’s exciting memories. But soon the depths of his prose are apparent: the reader knows it is in the hands of an extraordinary writer – one who is able to be economical yet deeply descriptive. Through this, Banville achieves the status of a truly great writer’s writer. And he is able to say something profound within the space of a short novel. As in life, in The Sea, there is no beginning, middle and end. It is a much more complex work than that.