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Customer Review

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mr. Banville's ghosts lost in Turin ....., 12 Jan. 2003
This review is from: Shroud : (Hardcover)
In 'Shroud' Mr. John Banville takes us to familiar territories, to
those of us who have read his previous books: the question of identity,
the unreliability of memory, the strange nature of the past. We have
been here before, in some form or other, either in the company of
Freddie Montgomery, the gentleman murderer and art critic from three
previous novels, or Victor Maskell, a man of very many facades, from
1997's 'The Untouchable'. Alex Vander, 'Shroud''s main voice, is an
amalgam of these creations, and through the course of the book Banville
ceaselessly circles around the the question of who Vander is, really,
starting from the book's opening interrogative, 'Who speaks?'. Some
solutions are offered, though of course past experience has taught us
to be very cautious in the presence of Mr. Banville's narrators. There
are always more surfaces than interiors.
Vander has arrived in Turin to meet Cass Cleave, one of the peripheral
spirits from Mr. Banville's previous novel, 'Eclipse', who may (or may
not, of course) know something about Vander's other life, before he
left Europe for America. Vander, a brutish old literary critic, is
worried that his elaborately constructed life may suddenly be exposed
as being as insubstantial as we know it is (we are, after all, in a
John Banville novel). This is the core of the narrative.
If this seems like a flimsy foundation for a novel, it is:
Mr. Banville's prose keeps the whole edifice standing. He writes very
well indeed, with sentences that demand to be turned and gazed at from
every angle. The point here is to make prose as lyrical as poetry, and
Mr. Banville comes as close as anyone to achieving this. The perfectly
weighted and balanced sentences of 'Shroud' trace out Vander's
disastrous collision with Cass Cleave, acted out against Turin's narrow
streets and marbled piazzas. A sharply drawn supporting cast provide
intermittent blasts of Beckettian comedic relief. It has been remarked
that the reason why Irish legend is full of stories of ghosts and
spirits is simply because, in that northern isle, the light is bad:
with such poor illumination, anything can be seen. It is remarkable to
see how well Mr. Banville's ghosts survive in the harsh light of Turin,
where most of the 'action' of the book takes place. Mr. Banville
somehow casts the city in a gloomy, indistinct aura (who could imagine
Italy could be this dark?), by virtue of observing almost everything
through the rheumy old eye of Alex Vander (literally: Vander lost his
other eye in unromantic circumstances in wartime London).
At the end of it all, when the narrative of 'Shroud' intersects that of
'Eclipse' (attentive readers will already know Cass' fate), it seems
that Mr. Banville has succeeded, at least in the sense that by the
book's last pages we feel fully immersed in the somewhat gloomy world
he has created, and leave it as if waking from a dream. Remarkably, he
makes us feel a twinge or two of compassion for Alex Vander. It is true
that those unmoved by the quality of the writing will doubtless find
the book's pace slow, whilst those distracted by the story's many
allusions (certain twentieth century philosophers and writers make
several oblique appearances) might find that sometimes Mr. Banville
tries perhaps a fraction too hard to add meaning to his ornate
prose. But for me, despite its pages being peopled by many shadows, the
book hovers persistently in the mind after the last sentence is
read. Along with the question of Alex Vander's true identity, this is
yet another mystery to ponder.
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