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'The Sea': Waves of elegant, evocative words



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Irish writer John Banville's novel The Sea won this year's Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award given in the English-speaking world. (Authors must be citizens of a Commonwealth nation or the Republic of Ireland, which makes U.S. writers ineligible.)

For readers who take books and literature seriously, The Sea is a must-have. One periodically rereads a sentence just to marvel at its beauty, originality and elegance.

The novel is a mystery, and Banville solves it bit by bit.

A grieving Irish widower returns to the small beach resort where he spent his summers. The author contrasts the widower's childhood memories of his friendship with a set of fraternal twins with more recent memories of his wife and her excruciating death from cancer.

The Sea is eerily accurate in describing how children on the cusp of adolescence perceive the world and the adults who rule it.

Banville doesn't offer us the happy Victorian fantasy that childhood is a realm of innocence and joy. Instead, the young narrator watches the grown-ups with the fanatic surveillance of a Cold War spy. Like Nabokov, Banville describes everything with the precision of a scientist and the language of a poet.

The boy is obsessed with the twins' wealthy, glamorous family. At first, he fixates on the mother and the mysteries of her female body. Later, he obsesses about the daughter and the nanny.

Frankly, the boy's thoughts are rather creepy as he covertly observes the family, transfixed by the mysteries of adult sexuality. But if the reader is candid, the boy's observations will bring forward one's own first, furtive sexual thoughts.

Banville's narrator is equally straightforward in describing his emotions and horror at the tumor eating away at his wife's body as well as its effect on their relationship. The frightened narrator is not particularly noble, but he is honest.

The mystery at the heart of the book involves an event that occurred more than half a century ago but continues to influence the thoughts and actions of the narrator in adult life. His genuine grief for the loss of his wife is unconsciously intensified by this earlier event.

The Sea offers an extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory. It's not a comfortable novel, but it is undeniably brilliant.

*Read an excerpt from The Sea at books.usatoday.com.

To see more of USAToday.com, or to subscribe, go to http://www.usatoday.com

© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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