The novels of John Banville cannot be read in a rush. His phrases are achingly beautiful and so densely packed that they demand slowness and savoring. Birchwood, one of his earliest novels, from 1973, re-released in a Vintage International edition, is no exception.
Drawing on his Irish roots, Banville has set Birchwood on an estate by that name in Ireland. Gabriel Godkin is a man returned to his family's ruined estate, looking back through his childhood at the truths of his family and his country. Through an extended flashback, we see Gabriel struggle with a cold father, a crazed mother and grandmother, all wobbling on the edges of an insanity that Gabriel acknowledges runs through his own blood. At the same time, in the background, we see Ireland falling apart as the people starve through the potato famine, the landed gentry lose their precarious place in the society, and Gabriel escapes from his family and finds his way into the traveling circus.
Through this strange transition from landed gentry to itinerate performer, Banville allows Gabriel to explore the idea of family-the ones we are born into and with whom we are forever connected by blood, and the ones we cobble together in the courses of our strange lives-and come to terms with his own self and his history.
Banville is a master at developing characters and exploring their interior landscapes while the characters are exploring some exterior one. Poetic and careful, he affords the reader a series of small pleasures as he describes and conjures interesting people and places.
Early in the novel, Gabriel explains "...it was as if in the deep wood's gloom I had recognized, in me all along, waiting, an empty place where I could put the most disparate things and they would hang together." The novel Birchwood also has such places, recognized by Banville, where he has carefully placed, for the reader to discover, disparate things-the ideas of family and home, the Irish potato famine, and the circus, of all things-that hang together beautifully.
Armchair Interview says: Well worth the read of this reissued book.