Originally published in a slightly different form in 1970, the current incarnation of John Banville's first book collects nine of Banville's short stories. Banville's skillfully crafted sentences are pregnant with meaning, his language is rich and evocative, but even more can be mined from the silences between sentences, the words left unspoken. In "Wild Wood," for instance, three boys in the woods talk about a woman who was murdered. The meat of this story is left untold; Banville leaves it to the reader to fill in the empty space. Similarly, most of the action in "Summer Voices" revolves around an old (possibly crazed) man who shows the body of a drowning victim to two children, a brother and sister. The real story, however, involves the relationship between the siblings, an innocence lost before their encounter with the dead body.
Nature, and particularly the sea (an instrument of death in "Summer Voices"), are recurring symbols in the stories. The sea surrounds the protagonist in "Island," a writer who, full of ambition when he leaves Ireland, grows stagnant while living on a Greek island. Or so says the woman he's with, the woman he's about to leave because she's too easy to understand.
Religion and death, estranged families and madness are recurring themes. "A Death" refers both to a death in the family and to the death of love. An old man at a funeral, ranting of evil and desolation and godless times, sparks the renewal of a discussion a couple must have had countless times before. Peter and Muriel, the lead characters in "Lovers," visit Peter's father before they leave town to start a new life -- a man who, having seen everything in his life slip away, is eager to meet his own death, but only after making sure that his son's hopes will also die. In "De Rerum Natura," a demented old man, bald with bandy legs like "an ancient mischievous baby," is attuned to the life that surrounds him, including the pigeons in the bedroom and the rats in the kitchen, but cannot make the same connection with the son who shudders at his "malevolent, insidious gaiety." But how much of the father lurks in the son?
One of the most thought-provoking stories (again, because of how much is left unsaid) is "Nightwind." A failed writer hosts a party where a murderer lurks on the premises and a friend makes a pass at his wife. The writer talks about the unhappy citizens of "the new Ireland" who are "trying to find what it is we've lost" but it is the writer's own losses -- of pride and ambition and his child -- that dominate his thoughts.
A couple of stories, I must confess, I didn't fully appreciate: "The Visit" concerns a girl whose mother died in childbirth. She waits to meet the father she's never seen, but her attitude changes after she talks with a strange little man on a bicycle. Julie, a student in "Sanctuary," discusses her fears of moving away as she prepares to leave her professor, Helen, with whom she has been spending the summer. Julie's fears are compounded by a visit from a black-clad stranger who seems to know Helen and who has come to say goodbye. Even the stories about which I was less enthused, however, provide early evidence of Banville's uncommon ability to conceal layers of meaning within simple stories.