“Since when did doctors start being younger than I am?”
BOOKER PRIZE WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • An “extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory” (USA Today) about a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside to grieve the loss of his wife.
In this luminous novel, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time.
What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel—among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.
Not the first time I’ve bitten off more than I could chew with cerebral literary fiction, but may be my last Banville. I’m usually pretty careful about researching books prior to borrowing, but in this case simply chose the author to add to my #ReadingIrelandMonth2023. The man has a vocabulary and he’s not afraid of using it.
And using it, he did. Unfortunately, many of his words were obscure, antiquated, obsolete. Dutifully, I looked up most of them. Some, I just didn’t care or could see in the context what it most likely meant. But really…eructations? My cell phone dictionary noted it is a belch. Origin: Late Middle English. Ah ha! As I suspected.
We are talking (first person) Max, a retired art historian whose wife recently died of cancer (though I often wondered if he didn’t just bore her to death). Her death conjured memories, painful memories, of his youth spent with his family in a summer resort community known as Ballymore (which he referred to as Ballyless) where he meets the Grace family that included twins, Chloe and Myles, and their governess, Rose. While his family stays in the Cedars, the Grace’s are obviously of a higher socio-economic level.
The narrative delves deeply into his fascination with Connie (the mother), then as he got older, and perceived Chloe’s pubescence, Chloe. With all the hyperbole, I forgot the initial reason for his fleeing to this particularly distressing area where as a young man first confronts tragedy.
I’m still not sure why he had to reconcile that history with the death of his wife. I don’t understand how they could have been more different. While he waxes poetically often succeeding in verbosity to the point of losing the original thought, his observations of Chloe gradually begin to paint the picture of a psychopath.
Okay, sociopath or psychopath? She is capable of being cruel—and doesn’t care. And what could she have possibly gained by walking carelessly into the sea—much less with her male twin following her? Shocking behavior, unexpected, a twist unforeseen, and doesn’t mesh with the personality we’ve been led to believe unless (once again) she’s pushing the envelope.
The author’s style of writing is to begin a thought, divert into another, then counter it, argue the point as if in debate, and end the sentence after it became a full paragraph without fully answering the first posit. Deeply embedded within the paragraph are fifty-dollar archaic words that require constant research and if none are readily available appear to be newly minted. The overly detailed descriptions of everything (even palm fronds?), while somewhat entertaining, bogs down the reading. The entirety is divided into two sections; no chapters. It’s a marathon read with intertwined tasty bits:
“I have been elbowed aside by a parody of myself, a sadly disheveled figure in a Hallowe’en mask made of sagging, pinkish-grey rubber that bears no more than a passing resemblance to the image of what I look like that I stubbornly retain in my head.”
I found the pacing slow, struggled with the philosophy, arguments, and dark sense of humor. It’s a tussle with grief and in this case thought one should be profound (his wife). The other appears to be not grief but unreconciled penance. A deeply introspective of the narrator left unresolved (although earlier, I thought it had). Still, it appeared that the latter troubled him more, took precedence over the death of his wife.
I’d wager there is more than enough here to keep a book club active for a month. The argument quickly becomes the same marathon the book demonstrates—and possibly finding no more resolution than the novel. How did you feel about it?
I received a review copy of this book from my local library that in no way influenced this review. These are my honest thoughts.
Rosepoint Rating: Three Stars
Genre: British & Irish Literary Fiction, Psychological Literary Fiction, Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction
Print Length: 210 pages
Publication Date: December 18, 2007
Source: Local library
Amazon 4 stars | Barnes & Noble 3.9 stars | Kobo 3.5 stars
The Author: John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of thirteen previous novels including The Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize. He has received a literary award from the Lannan Foundation. He lives in Dublin. [Amazon]
[Goodreads] Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children’s novel and a reminiscence of growing up in Wexford.
Educated at a Christian Brothers’ school and at St Peter’s College in Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect he did not attend university. Banville has described this as “A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free.” After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus which allowed him to travel at deeply-discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970.
After the Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at the Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left. Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1990. In 1984, he was elected to Aosdána, but resigned in 2001, so that some other artist might be allowed to receive the cnuas.
Banville also writes under the pen name Benjamin Black. His first novel under this pen name was Christine Falls, which was followed by The Silver Swan in 2007. Banville has two adult sons with his wife, the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing”. Banville has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.
Banville has a strong interest in vivisection and animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.
©2023 V Williams