Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘John Banville’

The Sea by John Banville

I’ve been on a John Banville reading binge for some time now and generally I am loving his novels. My most recent read, The Sea has been an absolute stand-out.

The story is told by a newly widowed man who has returned to grieve at a seaside village where he holidayed with his parents as a child. While he stays at a guesthouse called the Cedars he tells the story of a tragedy that happened there during a long-ago summer alternately with that of his wife’s recent illness and death.

Max befriended twins Chloe and Myles Grace the summer when he was 11. The Grace family were staying at the more up-market Cedars, while Max and his parents stayed at a ramshackle Chalet and did their own cooking on a fuel stove. Max fell in love for the first time that summer with Mrs Grace, only later transferring his affections to her aggressive and volatile daughter Chloe, with whom he shared his first, memorable kiss.

Max’s emotions concerning his wife Anna’s recent illness and death are raw. He talked about his awkwardness with Anna while she was dying and not knowing what to say to her as she told him her truths. Max was still dazed by her death and his grief was new, although he was conscious of having been eyed speculatively at Anna’s funeral by their female friends. Max’s relationship with his daughter is strained.

Max was an art historian and there are references to art in the story which reminded a little of those in The Blue Guitar which featured an artist who painted. The story of Max’s lust for Mrs Grace reminded me of the plot of Ancient Lights in which a teenage boy had an affair with an older, married woman. Max wasn’t old enough for anything of the sort, but I expect he would have wanted to pursue Mrs Grace sexually had he been older. Max told his story in a similar way to the main character in Ancient Lights, too. Now that I think about it, everything I’ve read by John Banville deals with grief in some way or other too.

Despite this being a book about grief, there were moments that made me laugh too, such as when the landlady at the Cedars served up a particularly horrible meal that caused Max and a fellow guest to “sit in vague distress listening to our systems doing their best to deal with the insults with which they have been just been served.” I’ve served up a few similar meals to my poor family too. I’ve found John Banville’s character’s faults to be similar to my own in other books, too.

The writing in The Sea is extraordinarily beautiful. This is a book which would be lovely to read aloud and I’m hoping to find a version of this to listen to sometime in the future. While reading The Sea I contented myself by closing a door at home (we’re in COVID-19 lockdown) and reading aloud to myself.

The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005, so clearly I’m not the only reader who loved it.

The Blue Guitar by John Banville

I’ve been looking forward to reading more books by John Banville since thoroughly enjoying Ancient Light, so picked up The Blue Guitar with the expectation of a few happy days of reading.

The story is narrated by Oliver Otway Orme, who was middle-aged, short and stout, or when he was being brutally honest with himself, owned up to being fat, with a big head and tiny feet. (Olly was much more honest with himself than I am when I look in the mirror, which put me against him from the beginning). He also had curly red hair, freckled, pale skin, so when Olly began an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly, it was clear that her attraction to him was for his wit and charm.

Adding to Olly’s appeal for Polly was that he was a successful painter, although at the time he told the story of this most recent love affair, he was no longer painting.

“In love! Again!”

Olly’s defining characteristic was petty thievery. Some of the items he stole were valuable, but most were not. Stealing things gave Olly more pleasure than anything else in his life and he recounted the provenance of each stolen item with a sense of the trait making him who he was as a person. Olly also described his affair with Polly as a theft.

Despite my dislike of Olly (I didn’t like Polly, or Olly or Polly’s spouses either) the saving grace for me in this book was the beautiful language, which is descriptive, patterned and completely enticing. I didn’t know a lot of words used in this book (and still don’t, as I didn’t look up any of the words I didn’t know as I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the story) but they sounded good. I expect that listening to The Blue Guitar being read aloud by someone with a beautiful voice would be a delightful experience.

Ancient Light by John Banville



Ancient Light has converted me to the delights of John Banville, although had I known this was the third book in a trilogy I would have started with the first book instead. The only other John Banville book I’ve read was Mrs Osmond which I didn’t enjoy, probably because I’d never read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James which that story is a sequel to. Not my fault, because there was nothing on the cover blurb of either to alert me.

Ancient Light is the story of Alexander Cleave, an actor in his mid-sixties, who tells the intriguing story of his first love affair as a fifteen-year old – with his best friend’s mother.

Alexander and his friend Billy are typical teenage boys, smelly and dirty, who alternate between sullen and boisterous behaviour. Mrs Gray initiated the affair, which seemed to be predominantly sexual and extremely risky, particularly for Mrs Gray’s, although Alexander says that on his part it was also love.

The book is about memories, and how they become distorted over time as people rewrite their histories. As Alexander tells the story, looking back so many years, it becomes clear that he has fashioned his memory of Mrs Gray and their affair to suit his own image of himself.

The present-day story is equally strong. Alexander’s only daughter suicided ten years earlier. Although he and his wife have grown out of the vicious fights they had when they were younger, they are not happily married. Alexander is working on his first film and his film co-star, a young glamour-puss, is also suicidal. Her story becomes part of Alexander and his wife’s grieving.

The film Alexander is working on is called ‘The Invention of the Past.’ Alexander is playing the title role of Axel Vander, the story of a literary man who may not have been who he said he was. Alexander comes to believe that there may have been a connection between his own daughter and Axel Vander.

The writing in this book is beautiful. I could use any sentence from the book at random to illustrate this, but I think the following is a lovely example of Alexander’s impeccable voice; as an actor every word he speaks is chosen to tell his story in the way he wants it to be delivered.

Mrs Gray for all her worked-at air of hazy detachment, was, I have no doubt, permanently on tenterhooks, fearful that sooner or later I was bound to go too far and take a pratfall  and send us both sprawling in the disarray of our perfidy at the feet of her astonished loved ones. And I, I am ashamed to say, teased her heartlessly.

I suspect I may have condemned this story if the affair had between an older man and younger woman, but by applying the usual double standards I didn’t find Alexander’s affair with Mrs Gray creepy at all. (It was smutty, but that is a completely different set of moral values). I’m justifying my lack of concern because the events happened a long time ago, Alexander was a more than willing participant and that so many years later, he remembered Mrs Gray and their affair with pleasure. I’m well aware that none of these arguments would stand up in an Australian court of law if Alexander were to decide otherwise.

As previously noted, I was disappointed to learn that this book was part of a trilogy, which began with Eclipse, then Shroud before finishing with Ancient Light. Luckily for me, Ancient Light also worked as a stand-alone.¬†(Note to self, write to John Banville’s publishers suggesting they add more information to his cover blurbs. For this to happen to me twice is frustrating).

Mrs Osmond by John Banville


Despite the Viking (Pengiun) edition of Mrs Osmond by John Banville being one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever seen, with green marbling decorating the inside covers and signed by the author to boot, I would not have borrowed this book from my local library had I realised Mrs Osmond is the story of what happens next to Henry James’ characters from The Portrait of a Lady, which I haven’t read.

I struggled with this book because Mrs Osmond required more of the character’s histories to be told for the story to work as a stand-alone novel. In Henry James’ style, John Banville didn’t leave any conversation or event until it has been fully told, and I very often caught myself wishing the author would hurry up and get on with telling the story…

Mrs Osmond begins with Isabel Archer having been married to Gilbert Osmond long enough to have realised her mistake. Gilbert Osmond has shown himself to be an unpleasant man and Isabel has learned that he married her for her money. Most shockingly of all, he has passed his daughter Pansy off to Isabel and the rest of the world as his late wife’s child, when in fact, the sleekly unpleasant Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

Having learned the shocking facts of Pansy’s parentage, Isabel intends to separate from her husband, but she also wants an ‘accounting’ or a ‘reckoning’ from him and from Madame Merle. Isabel spends most of the book travelling back to Italy on her way to the showdown with her husband, planning how best to extricate herself (and her money) from his clutches.

Possibly fans of The Portrait of a Lady will go mad for Mrs Osmond but this book was wasted on me. To make matters worse, I’ve enjoyed other stories by Henry James but have no intention now of ever reading The Portrait of a Lady. I probably wouldn’t even watch the movie!

I will read more by John Banville but will look for a stand-alone story next time.

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