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  • Alan Bray

A Journey of Surpassing but Inexplicable Importance


The premise of The Sea is that, after the death of his wife, a man is grieving, trying to go on but struggling, not only with the loss, but also his own mortality. He is living in the house he and his wife shared, the house their daughter grew up in, but feels estranged from it and is ready to sell. He journeys to a place he stayed at as a child, choosing to take a room in a hotel, The Cedars, which had been the residence of an eccentric family that had captured his attention long ago. A tragedy occurred at this place and time, a tragedy that is gradually foreshadowed and finally revealed. While he is staying at the hotel, great swaths of memory occupy him. He dwells on his childhood, the tragedy, and on the circumstances of his marriage and his wife’s death.

So how does he decide to go to The Cedars? The answer involves the story or plot.

Max, the protagonist, has a dream. In it, he is walking in a wintry wood.

“A dream it was that drew me here. In it, I was walking along a country road, that was all. It was in winter, at dusk, or else it was a strange sort of dimly radiant night, the sort of night that there is only in dreams, and a wet snow was falling. I was determinedly on my way somewhere, going home, it seemed, although I did not know what or where home might be…Something had broken down, a car, no, a bicycle, a boy’s bicycle, for as well as being the age I am now I was a boy as well, a big awkward boy, yes, and on my way home, it must have been home, or somewhere that had been home, once, and that I would recognize again, when I got there. I had hours of walking to do but I did not mind that, for this was a journey of surpassing but inexplicable importance, one that I must make and was bound to complete…I was alone on the road. The snow which had been slowly drifting down all day was unmarked by tracks of any kind, tyre, boot, or hoof, for no one had passed this way and no one would…I felt compassion for myself being dreamed, this poor lummox going along dauntlessly in the snow at fall of day with only the road ahead of him and no promise of homecoming…This was all there was in the dream…I woke into the murk of dawn not as I usually do these days, with the sense of having been flayed of yet another layer of protective skin during the night, but with the conviction that something had been achieved, or at least initiated.”

Then he thinks of the Graces and Chloe Grace, the family and the girl who had occupied his attention as a child. “I cannot think why, and it was as if I had stepped suddenly out of the dark into a splash of pale, salt-washed sunlight. It endured only a minute, less than a minute, that happy lightsomeness, but it told me what to do, and where I must go.”

A great description of a dream, the feeling state of the self being dreamed. Nothing “happens” seemingly, but it is life-changing. After this, Max reports he and his adult daughter, Claire, drive from Dublin to Bayless, the town where he stayed as a child. He identifies various places remembered from his youth and finally encounters the possible granddaughter of someone he knew long ago—a stranger. To her, he blurts out: “It is just, you see,” I said, “that my wife died.”

With Claire, he visits The Cedars, an evocative place the Grace family had lived in. He returns to Dublin and immediately calls the current owner of The Cedars, Miss Vavasour, and arranges to stay at The Cedars for an indefinite time. Although increasingly foreshadowed, the story does not reveal Miss Vavasour’s significance till late. However, clues abound. “I asked her if she remembered me. “Oh yes,” she said without inflexion. “Yes, of course I remember you.”

The Cedars is the central locus of the book in that it is from there that Max is telling the story. Claire, who knows her father’s history, says of his staying there: “You’re mad.” His new residence was the scene of an enormous trauma, one that he appears drawn to re-experience, perhaps in order to gain closure, even over his wife’s death, even over mortality, although he never says this directly. It is something that may be inferred by the reader.

So, tragedy and an intense dream impel the protagonist to return, later in life, to the place by the sea where he experienced a profound change, a transition from childhood to adulthood.

More on this next week, my dear ones.

#TheSea #JohnBanville