Cleaved apart


John Banville <em>Picador, 214pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0330339338

Alexander Cleave, narrator of the new Banville, is an actor whose recent corpsing during a major performance has precipitated a retreat from the world. Back in the country home of his childhood, Cleave - whose name means both to chop and to cling - is beset by ghosts from his past. As he waits in vain for a grand revelation, he sets about dissecting his life, trying to find meaning and solace in remembered objects and encounters. When this, too, proves fruitless, his maudlin imagination begins to people his solitude.

As Cleave displays the hammed-up ways of the well-toured actor, Banville is allowed to indulge himself under the rubric of theatrical excess. Always rich, his language here is foregrounded, and the sentence structure and vocabulary are a touch archaic - "gay" is used in its original sense, and words such as "prestidigitation" and "mephitic" beg you to keep a dictionary close at hand. Yet this is all part of Banville's determination to draw the reader's attention to the language itself, to appreciate the rhythm and texture of the prose - his writing valorises the theatrical play of language over the more conventional concerns of narrative cogency.

Banville's studied register complements the fusty yet histrionic atmosphere of the haunted old house, and is the perfect medium for representing the inner life and all its speculation. There is little plot here. Cleave muses over his failed marriage and his parents in a series of lugubrious anecdotes to such an extent that, at first, he fails to notice that the caretaker, Quirke, and his daughter, Lily, are also living in the house. Soon these spectral presences have been assimilated by our self-absorbed chronicler, and a surrogate family is dreamily instated.

A further ambition of Banville's deliberated prose is the reawakening of perception. There are no quick and simple recognitions, dismissive detailings or easy categorisations. Objects and people are taken out of the realm of habitual perception and viewed from an unsettling perspective. This means that the novel is neither an instantly satisfying read, nor a straightforward one, as the reader is expected to see and contemplate with an assiduity to rival that of Cleave himself. When Cleave grabs the banister rail, he records "the clammy texture of old varnish and the oddly unresistant hardness of the wood". Even when his birth daughter is wrestling with an intruder, he can't help but note "the almost classical composition of the scene". As for drawing strange parallels, an old telephone receiver has "the osseous heft of a tribal artefact".

Such a determined aesthetic is prone to overwriting - "aimlessly" is followed in the next clause by "without fixed direction" - and Banville's fondness for a holy trinity of descriptive qualifiers can be irritating: stones are "slow, secret, long enduring". These word clusters promise richness, but often only place well-cushioned buffers at the end of a rhythmic phrase.

Pleasing though it is for the reader to be encouraged to inhabit the language (and, by association, Cleave's interiority), this soft ponderousness can tire: you yearn for a more flinty prose of sharp edges and sparks. At times, a paragraph can seem like a mouth with too many teeth, with Banville still trying to find room for the wisdoms. Still, in an age of brightly coloured disposable fiction, Banville's verbal fastidiousness is something to be savoured.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie