Picks and Pans Review: The Sea

updated 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST


by John Banville

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John Banville's new novel, which recently won Britain's Man Booker Prize, sent me to the dictionary 18 times in search of such words as "ichor" and "mephitic." But far from suggesting pretense in Banville's prose, such language confirms his extraordinary precision: Banville is a master at capturing the most fleeting memory or excruciating twinge of self-awareness with riveting accuracy. So it hardly matters that the book unfolds without much action, as the interior musings of an aging art historian named Max Morden. Unhinged by his wife's death from cancer, he returns to the scene of his childhood holidays and rooms in the villa that once housed the neighbors who inspired his social striving. Grief turns him back on a tragedy buried in those summer memories, and the book ends with a revelation that—like a camera flash—casts all that has gone before in stark relief.

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