John Manville’s The Sea is about a man’s untrustworthy memories—less about his dying wife, and more about his sexual awakening when he was about eleven years old. Looking back, Max Morden realizes that his observations of the Grace family’s beach picnics “changed his life forever.” After fifty years, he has come back to the beach resort of Ballyless, Ireland, where he met the Grace family, who in some profound way, he has yet to understand.
Morden thought the Graces were gods of some kind and he, only a mere mortal. Attending his first picnic with them, he marvels at their picnic gear: the striped canvas awning, folding chairs and table, a large straw hamper filled with tins of sandwiches, biscuits, vacuum flasks and real tea cups and saucers. Not the least, he remembers being aroused by Constance Grace’s adult tanned body, her black swimsuit, and titillated by her inner thighs.
As the summer progresses, Morden becomes friends with Chloe Grace, also eleven and they have an innocent romance. But the summer turns solemn when Morden mistakenly thinks that Rose Vavasour, the Grace’s nanny, is having an affair with Carlo Grace. When he confides this to Chloe, who confides this to her twin brother Myles, the two of them commit suicide by drowning in the sea. Morden, has a dull sense of responsibility, but is forced to watch them helplessly. (Banville may have chosen the name Morden because it means “murder” in German.)
Now sixty-one, and mourning the death of his wife, Anna, Morden returns to Ballyless, in order to come to terms with the twins’ death. There he meets Rose Vavasour who tells him that it was not Carlo she loved but Constance. “Oh, no,” she said, “never him.” “And I thought, too, of the day of the picnic and her sitting behind me on the grass and looking where I was avidly looking and seeing what was not meant for me at all.”
Morden is stunned, realizes his mistake, its consequences. He barely recovers his equanimity, but upon returning home, his wife dies. Walking into the hospital, Morden feels deathly, as if he is “walking into the sea.”
Featured Image: Constance Grace (Natascha McElhone)on the beach at Ballyless. Carlo Grace and the twins Chloe and Miles are in the background.
See: John Banville. The Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; Stephen Brown. The Sea (2013). Screenplay by John Banville based on his novel.