Dan Sandman

44: The Sea by John Banville

In Books, Fiction on 01/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Sea by John BanvilleThis is a book about memory that I found in a hospital whilst waiting to have a surgical operation. How memory shifts from past, present and future; how experience is constructed in a fluid way that over spills into our daily life. Here I am, making a cup of tea, but I’m thinking about the past and dreaming of the future. There I was, eight years ago, reading a book that had just won the Booker prize by Irish writer John Banville. My granddad had recently died and I wanted to read something that would help me to come to terms with grieving. It sits in my mind, alongside something I’m playing on the piano, as the anesthetist sends me off to sleep in the room with the surgeon’s knives.

It was either this or the bible, they always have the bible in hotel rooms and hospital television rooms. I figured, rather than brush up on my rather rudimentary knowledge of religion, I’d reread a book about an art historian coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Death, an appropriate subject for a hospital library – if such an ambitious term can be applied to a couple of moldy old novels, a copy of the New Testament and a Booker prize winner from the days of my early twenties. Why do people give all their best books to charity shops when places like hospital wards would benefit hugely from an influx of good books to read. Patients, by their very nature, certainly do have the time to wait and to read.

But anyway, dear readers, there are a couple of key features, in regards to this book, that might be of interested, of which I will now share. Firstly, The Sea by John Banville is not structured in chronological order and does not contain chapters. Secondly, it does contain lots of long words and at times I was not entirely sure what was happening in the story. Because of these challenging features, the reading experience was best appreciated when I read in big chunks and allowed my mind to let go of convention. Happily, as the story unravels, all is revealed as the book reaches its symphonic climax.

Because this book, and other books written in a free flowing style, encourage me, as a reader, to be swept away with language, I feel my powers of concentration become absorbed when reading such books. In a way that poetry can do, but on a much grander scale, the rhythm and music of the English language is given license to shine as the plot becomes less important. The story may be one of extraordinary events in an ordinary life – there are no gun-slinging heroes or fairy-tale princesses here – but the story is given an exciting pace and emotional gravity by the writer’s mastery of form and language. Time becomes nonlinear as experience and memory shift from paragraph to paragraph.

So, as I lay in the hospital ward reading a book from my past, my thoughts drifted from the words on the page, the sounds of the ward and my own wandering conscious memories and future projections. The surgical operation, the removal of two benign lumps from my neck, one four centimeters in diameter, turned out to a success. The surgeon, with the aid of a computer, managed to completely miss a vulnerable nerve connected to my shoulder and skillfully cut out the offending lumps. As a bonus and aside to the main action, my stay in hospital led to the rediscovery of The Sea by John Banville; a book that resonates towards something resembling a humanly emotional landscape.

Lying in bed as a patient, this book was my joy and comfort.

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