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Dwelling Places: A Novel (VINITA HAMPTON Wright)
Dwelling Places: A Novel (VINITA HAMPTON Wright)
Vinita Hampton Wright
HarperOne, 2006
352 pp., $23.95

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Betty Smartt Carter

So Wide and Deep

The Booker Prize-winning novel by John Banville.

I learned a lot from John Banville's latest novel, The Sea. For instance, I can rattle off five new terms for bodily excretions, including "particles of nether-do"; I can diagnose a case of "grog blossoms"; and I'm aware that "ichor" refers not only to the liquid flowing through the veins of the gods but to that watery stuff that leaks out of a paper cut. I also know that "strangury" is a mystical-sounding word for slow urination (yes, this is a book about growing old).

Such discoveries mostly delight me, but others find Banville's writing pretentious and remote. "Banville's famously torrid affair with his thesaurus," writes Jessica Winters of the Village Voice, "has previously birthed erudite but emotionally delimited characters … but The Sea nudges this pathos toward parody." It is true that if he paid a fine for every time he broke the writer's rule of ordinary language, Banville would have to mortgage his Booker Prize. It's unfair to say, though, that he dotes on words at the expense of human feeling. In fact, it's the preening language of The Sea that most reveals its hero, a man both vain and emotionally broken.

Max Morden is an art historian of no particular genius. ("As for us middling men," he says, "there is no word sufficiently modest that yet will be adequate to describe what we do and how we do it.") For years he's been "mired" in a monograph on the French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), famous for his many portraits of his wife Marthe in the tub: "Brides-in-the-Bath," Max's wife Anna calls him. At their oceanside home, Anna herself spends long hours in the bath, soothing the pain of her cancer. Max sometimes worries she'll drown accidentally: "I would creep down the stairs and stand on the return, not making a sound, seeming suspended there, as if I were the one under water." Guiltily, he half wishes she'd go on and get it over with, for both their sakes. When she does at last die, in the hospital, he finds himself drowning in grief, past ...

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