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A Classic of Literary Deception,
This review is from: Shroud : (Hardcover)
John Banville's latest novel 'Shroud' possesses all the ingredients of a classic: a narrator who is deceptive and mendacious, but who nevertheless manages to be strangely honest and open in his digressive, bitter confession; a middle section which alters the direction and pace of the novel entirely; and the final, perhaps most important ingredient, the crisp, poised prose which makes reading 'Shroud' such an evocative, all-consuming process. 'Shroud' reads as though it has been put together from the best components, with the surest of hand - it is a gift of a novel, one not to miss.
Most of 'Shroud' is narrated by Axel Vander, a wonderfully bitter old man: he has lost his wife and he has come to the end of his career as a critic, and he now spends his time looking back at how he has lived. We learn that he has received a letter, and that the content of this letter has compelled him to travel to Turin (much is made of the presence - and absence - of the Turin Shroud); it seems that a young woman has discovered a secret in Vander's past, and Vander wishes to confront the woman. Part of the what hooks the reader in the novel's first phase is Banville's masterly use of the mystery of the secret and the mystery of the finder of the secret to build tension and anxiety: we are never quite sure of what it is that Vander hopes to achieve, but there is always the suggestion of aggression and anger in Vander's narrative. We are not prepared for what in fact occurs, in relation to the young woman and Vander. The lives of these two key protagonists become entwined in a beautiful and sad relationship that culminates in a powerful (and intentionally underplayed) tragedy.
When the end of 'Shroud' is reached, when the reader is moments from closing the book, there is a feeling of both closure and irresolution. The novel itself feels complete: on reaching the final sentences it is as though everything has been carefully planned and plotted, from first word to last. 'Shroud' feels whole and complete - a work of literature, fixed forever. But within this novel, Banville constructs a narrative that does not provide the reader with all the answers, with clear cut conclusions or certainties. In fact, the opposite is true, and so 'Shroud' keeps the reader thinking, long after they have finished reading.