"The Newton Letter" is a mere eighty-one pages, a good thing since this imaginative and masterfully written, but often cryptic, novel needs to be read at least twice (if not three times) to fully appreciate John Banville's enigmatic, introspective tale.
Written in the first person, the nameless, fiftyish male narrator of "The Newton Letter" is an historian who has spent seven years writing a book about Sir Isaac Newton. Seeking a sanctuary to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House, "a big gloomy pile with ivy and peeling walls and a smashed fanlight over the door, the kind of place where you picture a mad stepdaughter locked up in the attic." It is a setting, and a story, heavy with gothic overtones.
In his words, "the book was as good as done, I had only to gather up a few loose ends and write the conclusion-but in those first few weeks at Ferns something started to go wrong . . . I was concentrating, with morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to [Newton's] breakdown and those two letters [Newton had written] to Locke."
He becomes obsessed, however, not only with Newton's two letters to John Locke, but also with the inhabitants of Fern House: Edward, the often drunk master of the house; Charlotte, his wife, a tall, middle-aged woman with an abstracted air and a penchant for gardening; Ottilie, the big, blonde, twenty-four year old niece of Charlotte; and Michael, the adopted son of Edward and Charlotte.
The narrator soon becomes entangled with Ottilie in a mysterious way when she appears at his door. "It's strange to be offered, without conditions, a body you don't really want." But what, exactly, is the nature of his relationship with Ottilie? When he embraces her, he feels "the soft shock of being suddenly, utterly inhabited." In the pervasive aura of the gothic, the reader wonders exactly what is happening, for, as the narrator enigmatically relates in the middle of the novel while making love to Ottilie, "how should I tell her that she was no longer the woman I was holding in my arms?" It is a strange statement, presumably intended to refer to the fact that the narrator's true obsession is with the older, aloof Charlotte, even as he cavorts with Ottilie. The mystery is fed by the narrator's conclusion, where he speaks of brooding on certain words, "succubus for instance." It suggests, in short, a kind of surreal narrative imagining, where the realism of the narrator's struggle with his book on Newton is confounded by the incursion of the strange, enigmatic and, at times, dreamlike inhabitants of Fern House.
"The Newton Letter" is a powerful, intricate and allusive work of imagination that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. Banville shows, with remarkable skillfulness, how the narrator's imagined history of the inhabitants of Fern House is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the reality of their lives. At the same time, Banville draws on the gothic to lend his tale an imaginative element that is both a counterpoint to the real lives at Fern House and a touchstone to the enigma of the Newton letters. Like great works of literature, "The Newton Letter" is an ambiguous text open to many interpretations, the writing an elliptical treasure that allows the reader's imagination to run free in the interstices of Banville's creative field.