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By Banville, John
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
195 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2015

The narrator, Max Morden, has returned to his ancestral village in Ireland after some 50 years away. His wife, Anna, has just died and he is having an extremely difficult time knowing how to deal with her death. He is angry, frightened, dazed and dealing with it all very poorly.

He is both deeply saddened and fairly lost without his wife, yet in some ways he is angry with her, seemingly wishing to believe that she could or should have done other than dying.

While he and his wife have not lived near this sea-side village in their married lives, although they have visited there on several vacations, he still has vivid memories of his youth into which he can somewhat escape and retreat from the reality of her death.

Max remembers well a family, the Graces, who lived in the “big house” of the area many years ago. He especially remembers Chloe, her father Carlo and brother, Myles. However there was a special place for Connie, the mother of the twins. It was she with whom he first fell in “love” when he was about 12. Soon after that “love” was turned more to Chloe who seemed to somewhat return his affections and attentions.

Today the manor house is run as a vacation home by Mrs. V. This is an Irish seaside village, but it isn’t clear on which part of the sea it is located.

Anna, his wife, had developed multiple sclerosis in past years and she soon died.

Claire, his daughter is about 20. She tries to be a concerned and loving daughter and starts checking up on him, but he rebels and asks her not to, and to leave him be.

Max, however, has never really lived on his own nor earned his own living. One of the attractions to his wife, Anna, was that her father was quite wealthy and she was an only child. Thus he became free to do his writing, as he calls it, but it isn’t the sort of money that would allow one to live the decent life he and Anna live. It is her inheritance that provides that.

Max even reveals:

“ . . . all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from the sky’s indifferent gaze and the harsh air’s damagings.”

I couldn’t help but think this really describes me in my own retirement!!

Why has he really come back to this place of his childhood?

“I do not want solicitude, I want anger, vituperation, violence. I am like a man with an agonizing toothache who despite the pain takes a vindictive pleasure in prodding the point of his tongue again and again into the throbbing cavity.”

He talks of his first kiss with Chloe, and how he was always with the twin brother when he was with Chloe.

Now, suffering from the loss of his wife and hardly knowing what to do with himself or how to escape the pain, he tries to move back some 60 or so years and wallow in those times of his coming into young adulthood, a period when he has sort of kiddy love affair or flirtation with Chloe. He just seems to need to wallow in the escapism of some sort of idealized past.

He does have some odd anger at his wife for having died:

“. . . how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you.”

And he also drinks a lot to drown the sorrow of his wife’s death.

There really isn’t much more to the plot, and the story isn’t really about what is above. It is a journey into the heart of a man suffering terribly at the loss of his long-time partner, even though theirs was not an intense love affair.

Nonetheless, they were partners, their lives blended into one another’s and he finds himself frightened, angry and very unsure of himself.

John Banville’s writing is simply astonishing. It is a very long prose poem beautifully written and gripping. There were times when I wanted to simply shake Max and tell him how badly he was behaving. There were times when I wanted to cry with him for his loss. But no matter the feelings that Banville evinced from me they were deep and real and strongly felt. He is a gifted writer and this is an especially touching and profound novel.

I recommend it to all, but especially to those, like me, in their later years, yet having a beloved partner and realizing the likelihood that one of the two of us is going to be in the basic predicament that Max is him. I would so wish that were it me I would behave in a much more loving and caring manner, yet at the same time, I would hope I would not give into the pity that I think I would feel were I the one left behind.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett