John Banville knows lots of interesting words, and he's not afraid to use them. "Proscenium", "moue", even (and this comes distressingly early on) "apotropaic" are not beyond his employ. Reading Banville's The Sea, then, becomes an education as much as anything else. With a dictionary open beside you, and perhaps a copy of Brewer's or something of its ilk to help with the tricky mythological allusions, The Sea can be a breezy, bracing read. It is not, however, a particularly good novel.
Part of the problem is the familiarity of the story. Following the death of his wife, middle-aged art historian Max Morden is drawn to visit the seaside village where he holidayed as a child. Max's return to Ballyless (as the town is called; there is another up the road called Ballymore - one of Banville's more obvious, and less amusing, jokes) naturally evokes memories of his formative experiences there and so Max sets about weaving a rich tapestry(or possibly doona cover) of recollection and meditation, as he attempts to understand the past in terms of the present, or possibly the other way around. Whatever the case, you may rest assured that his tone remains hauntingly elegiac at all times.
Of course I am being flippant here, but it is hard not to be when confronted with such a mish-mash of well-trodden themes. The Sea is, quite simply, unoriginal. There are echoes here of everything from Orwell's Coming Up For Air, to Flaubert's Parrot and of course the great-grandfather of all memory novels, In Search of Lost Time. (This is most blatant: Proust's narrator also has formative experiences at a seaside resort and lives to return and wallow in self-doubt and nostalgia. And this is just the beginning of Banville's debt to the Frenchman.)
Derivative as it is, The Sea is never the less very well written, and Banville lives up to his reputation as the "heir of Nabokov" with his predeliction for word-play and allusion. Unfortunately, this too becomes irritating, as you become so preoccupied with the well-turned phrases and exotic vocabulary that the already slight storyline comes to seem almost superfluous. Also, the pitch of his prose barely changes throughout. You can open The Sea at almost any page and find something to like. Reading the whole thing, one page after another, is a different story, and not one I particularly enjoyed.