on 10 October 2009
This book has very clear echoes of Proust, both in the writing style and in the sense of nostalgia that pervades the story of aristocratic decline. The references are clear and deliberate - in the very first chapter, Banville's narrator refers to his fragments of memory as "madeleines" and talks of his "search for time misplaced."
Birchwood is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. While the writing style is reminiscent of Proust in its dreamy beauty, it clips along at a much faster pace, as does the sometimes bizarre plot of childhood resentments, exploding grandmothers, running off to join the circus, searching for a long-lost sister, etc. Also there's a detachment from the destruction that comes to Birchwood, a sense that it's inevitable and even deserved, a strong context of the social unrest in Ireland at the time.
The writing was brilliant from the first page to the last, and made me want to read a lot more of Banville's work.
on 5 July 2011
I only recently discovered John Banville after reading The Book of Evidence, Copernicus and the Infinities, and soon ordered everything else that he has written. I rarely write reviews for books, but Birchwood had me so entranced in its lyrical spell that I wanted to tell eveyone interested in great literature about this little gem.
With its father-son relationship, insanity and violence, Birchwood reminds me of Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel. With a little less gore and mutilations (but certainly not without them). The language is equally breathtaking so that even death captivates. It's a world of magical realism set among circus folk but a world deprived of laughter; there are no happy clowns here throwing pies in your face - the tone is sinister and the clowns malevolent. The language spellbinding. 175 pages that you don't want to end.