Plenty of Other Fish in John Banville’s The Sea

“I can still recall the aroma of after-lunch coffee on the doctor's breath and the fishy swivel of his housekeeper's eye as she saw me to the front door.” -- John Banville, The Sea

“Fishy swivel” is great, simultaneously a guilty pleasure to pronounce and some kind of a pun -- the housekeeper suspects the doctor has been up to something “fishy” with the boy, and her eye is like that of a fishy, cold and glassy.

Many of the characters in The Sea are fish-eyed, floundering, out of their element when not all at sea. Some also drink like fish, although Banville protests in an aside that fish do not really drink. The narrator's father-in-law wears “those big heavy spectacles favoured by tycoons of the time, with flanged ear-pieces and lenses the size of saucers in which his sharp little eyes darted like inquisitive, exotic fish.”

The whole underwater world is distorted, dreamlike, and treacherous. A similarly oceanic emotion is transmitted by the paintings of Pierre Bonnard – like many of Banville's other novels, The Sea has an unreliable narrator obsessed with a particular painter, Bonnard in this case. I'm also reminded of the feeling I get from the Lou Reed song “Ashes to Ashes (Cremation).” Here's the last moment of eye contact between the narrator of The Sea and his dying wife --

“Waking now, she turned her head on the damp pillow and looked at me wide-eyed in the underwater glimmer of the nightlight with an expression of large and wary startlement. I think she did not know me. I had that paralysing sensation, part awe and part alarm, that comes over one in a sudden and unexpected solitary encounter with a creature of the wild. I could feel my heart beating in slow, liquid thumps, as if it were flopping over an endless series of identical obstacles. Anna coughed, making a sound like the clatter of bones. I knew this was the end.”

We swim through this life, waiting to be hooked.

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