“Summerwater” by Sarah Moss: like waiting for it to dry

“Summerwater” is like a series of short stories, each chapter a stream of consciousness for a holidaymaker whiling away yet another wet day at a rundown chalet park on the shores of a Scottish loch. Varying in age from children to pensioners, they are all ordinary, somewhat stereotyped, their thoughts in general banal yet a tad contrived, often mean, unpleasant or devious. The short passages, mostly about nature, which separate the chapters, also seem laboured. There’s a distinct lack of positive humour or joy, perhaps unsurprising, given the weather, the setting and inconsiderate noisy neighbours.

We meet in turn a midde-aged wife and mother who runs miles before breakfast to find fulfilment, a retired doctor who fights against the onset of old age, solicitous towards his wife while despising her for “giving in”, a young woman faking a simultaneous orgasm with her fiancé, being more excited by Don Draper of Mad Men fame and bacon butties. The fact that we are never given the viewpoint of the noisy neighbours, assumed to be Romanian when not Bulgarians or Poles, is a way of increasing the sense of alienation from those who do not “fit in”.

And so the narrative drifts on to the final chapter which ends in the book’s single dramatic event, perhaps most shocking in leaving one insufficiently moved. Is this because we haven’t been given enough scope to engage with any one character, or the climax is too abrupt and disconnected from the previous chapters?

It may have been relief at reaching the end, but the final poetic passage “Drums” and last chapter “Noise in his Body” were for me the best-written part, reminiscent of what impressed me in the writer’s earlier novel, “Ghost Wall”.

“Drums. …Music crosses raindrops, the air full of noises and riddled with movement…The anthill pulses. Damp trees absorb the higher frequencies, swallow the energy into wetness and wood-flesh, so it is the bass that penetrates your head and drums on the drums inside.”

I came to this book with raised expectations, only to be sadly disappointed. What reads like a collection of exercises in creative writing while waiting for inspiration to flare, seems rather bleak and pointless.


				

Golden Child by Claire Adams “Paying for Peter”

Growing up in Trinidad, from a poor family with a violent father, Clyde Deyalsingh learned at a young age not to rely on other people. In a community where corruption is rife, even the police take bribes, everyone knows where the drug lords live in their fortified compounds and too many men take refuge in rum, Clyde works hard, avoids trouble, and keeps rottweilers to guard against intruders. With twin sons to raise, and brothers-in-law in the habit of coming round for free meals at the weekend, despite being better off than he is, Clyde reluctantly accepts help, both cash and string-pulling to get him a better paid job, from his wife’s generous uncle Vishnu, a widely admired doctor. Caring little for material goods himself, Vishnu is keen to support those he thinks deserving, not only Clyde, but his unusually gifted son Peter, predicted to gain a place at Harvard. Vishnu casually ignores the resentment this arouses in Clyde’s brother-in-law Romesh, who has gained security by marrying into a well-off family.

Clyde is troubled by the disparity between his sons, physically alike but very different in personality and apparent ability. Unlike Peter, Paul has learning difficulties and behavioural problems believed to be due to oxygen deprivation at birth, and is accustomed to hearing himself called “retarded” and threatened with the dreaded “St. Ann’s” mental hospital. His mother Joy insists Paul must be treated as much like Peter as possible even to the point of a place being wangled for him at the prestigious secondary school to which Peter has won a place. But as they reach the age of thirteen, how long can this “equality” be maintained? When Paul disappears one day after school, Clyde is torn between irritation and disquiet.

This debut novel by an author who grew up in Trinidad has a strong sense of place, whether in downtown Port of Spain or the seashore lined with coconut palms, which feels authentic even for a reader like me who has never set foot there. In the bush, the flitting batty-mamzel dragonflies; “the dull thud of a falling mango” compared to the “sharp, knocking sound a coconut would make”; “the shushing of raindrops landing on the canopy above; just a little drizzle… spattering off at odd angles”. This is what Paul notices, revealing that he is a more complex, thoughtful individual than his father can imagine, probably suffering mainly from acute dyslexia, yet with a practical bent which as an adult might make him as successful as his brother, in his own way.

This is a well-observed psychological drama involving an Indo-Caribbean family, and the young Irish priest who tries to help Paul, enabling us to see how the main characters appear to each other, with the exception of Peter, the “golden child”, who reveals little of his personality apart from conformity and a patient acceptance of his twin.

Throughout the slow-burning tale, there are occasional incidents of sudden violence, so it should not come as a shock when, three-quarters of the way through, it shifts up into a tense thriller in which Clyde will clearly have to make a difficult decision.

I was left disappointed by the ending, not because I dislike it, but owing to the rushed, disjointed final scenes in which the characters became two-dimensional and underdeveloped with too many implausible incidents or unexplained reactions. Admittedly, this provides many talking points for a book group. It leaves the scope to fill in the gaps with one’s own interpretations. However, for me the conclusion was too abrupt, ducking the challenge of writing the hardest part of the novel.

“Elmet” by Fiona Mozley: an inevitable descent?

Teenagers Daniel and his elder sister Cathy help their father to construct the isolated house in a hill-top copse which he does not own within earshot of the East Coast Main Line through Yorkshire, an odd choice for a rural retreat. Apart from a period attending school, where they found it hard to fit in, the pair have spent their childhoods as outsiders, dominated by their “Daddy” John, throwback to a former, simpler age, who wishes to have no truck with modern life, although to earn the money to make this possible, he engages at times with the sleazier parts of it, using his remarkable strength and skill as a bare-knuckle fighter (the name alone makes one wince in pain) in bouts arranged by gypsies and crooks. Portrayed as a kind of latter-day Robin Hood, he often channels his violence to settle scores against villains on behalf of those too physically weak to do so. Narrator Daniel describes how humanely “Daddy” traps and kills animals for food, but is he really a good man?

Daddy’s unconventional views are demonstrated in his attitude to land. “It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can used it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.”

Unsurprisingly, owner of the land in question, Mr Price, takes issue with him over this, although there turn out to be other reasons for a long-term grievance between the two men. Can Daddy really hope to win against a wealthy wily, unscrupulous landowner? Brought up to defend themselves, how well will Daniel and Cathy be able to support their father when it comes to the crunch?

The location “Elmet” is inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes, “The Remains of Elmet”, which he described as, “The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees”. The novel also has hints of a latterday “Wuthering Heights”.

Author Fiona Mozley succeeds in creating a vivid sense of place, as regards both the natural landscape and the local community, impoverished by mine closures, where people struggle on zero hours contracts at the mercy of dishonest local employers. There is a convincing portrayal of the complex bond between the father and his children: caring and protective on one hand, he is unintentionally neglectful and damaging on the other. The children’s roles are a reversal of the norm, with Cathy strong and aggressive and Daniel gentle and domesticated.

I understand why many readers have praised this book, even how it came to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Yet, although an original debut novel, it falls short for me in some fundamental ways. Perhaps the author wanted to portray Daniel as both immature and perceptive for his age, but his “voice” is inconsistent, switching between that of a naïve, inexperienced boy to observations and insights beyond his years. Poetic passages often sit oddly in the text, by turns overly sophisticated or grating:

“He was a human, and the gamut upon which his inner life trilled ranged from the translucent surface to beyond the deepest crevice of any sea. His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.”
Since the author grew up in Yorkshire, I have to assume she has “captured” the local dialect, but many of the longer dialogues contain too much exposition. Some characters, like the children’s absent mother, or their neighbour Vivien, are underdeveloped. The violence of the climax surpasses everything which precedes it, but becomes quite implausible in the process. Also, the novel gains little from what has become the formulaic prologue trying to hook the reader by “giving away” some of the ultimate violent outcome, nor from the “flash forward” passages also in italics which show Daniel in the aftermath of events.

“In the Full Light of the Sun” by Clare Clark – fascinating theme but confused plot

Against a backdrop of rampant inflation and corruption, “madness spreading like gas”, in 1920s Berlin, famous art critic Julius Köhler-Schultz is in the throes of a bitter divorce from his much younger wife, who has decamped with their small son and “the only painting in the world” Julius “could not bear to live without”, a self-portrait of Van Gogh. In this vulnerable state he falls under the spell of a charismatic young art dealer, Matthias Rachman, but is he quite what he seems? Julius also supports the artistic ambitions of talented but troubled teenager Emmeline Eberhardt.

This novel was inspired by the long-forgotten but once famous case of Otto Wacker, the German dancer who was eventually tried for knowingly selling fake Van Gogh paintings, always after compromising the reputation of some expert by gaining his authentication. Initially I was impressed by the novel’s very strong sense of time and place, and the slow-burning build-up of suspense. It was therefore a shock to be plummeted into Part 2 with an abrupt switch to the viewpoint of Emmeline whose drunken agonising over unrequited lesbian love becomes somewhat tedious, although no doubt a true reflection of one aspect of inter-war Berlin. By the time I reached Part 3 in the form of the diary of lawyer Frank Berzacki, forced to face up to the Nazi regime’s inexorable crushing of Jewish rights, I realised that the author has deliberately inverted what one expects of a plot. Instead of setting an art crime at the forefront, this is obliquely referred to throughout the book, generally secondary to the inner thoughts and concerns of the three main characters in turn.

Can one ever be sure a painting is not a fake? Are the eye-watering sums paid for some art justified? Such questions woven into a historical thriller about possible fraud should make an absorbing read, so why did I find it frustrating, the middle section in particular such heavy going? I could forgive the frequently overblown or mawkish style whenever the author touches on passionate feelings, because this is offset by the many striking, poetical images, particularly in Emmeline’s section which I suppose is a way of portraying her artistic eye. She describes a flock of starlings: “ a vast rippling cape…surging and wheeling, stretching into swooping curves, twisting in helixes, rising in streamers on the wind, the whisper-roar of their wings like the sea or the thrumming of a thousand fingers on a thousand paper drums”.

The three sections are welded together in an unwieldy structure. Too many mostly thinly sketched and often unnecessary characters, and minor incidents which pad the novel up to over four hundred pages, tend to overwhelm or drive out the plot, in which key events take place “off stage” and so remain confused or unclear and left for the reader to surmise. I would have preferred the author’s painstaking research applied to a factual portrayal of art in interwar Germany.

“Good Morning Midnight” by Jean Rhys – looking for love

It’s the 1930s, and the narrator who calls herself Sasha, no longer young, has been lent money by a woman friend to leave London and attempt a fresh start in Paris. Since it is clear from the outset that she is depressed, lonely and alcoholic, only feeling lucky “ when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane”, it seems inevitable that this will not end well.

Gradually, through fragmented memories, we learn of the past love affair which broke her heart, but not of underlying explanations for her inability to copy with life and to “be like other people”, her fear and sense of rejection and ultimate lack of desire to go on living. This novel seems to be to some extent autobiographical, most particularly in describing Sasha’s perceptions and emotions, in various stages of drunkenness, rarely sober. Despite my alternating feelings of depression and irritation over Sasha’s passivity and destructive self-absorption, the writing exerted a remarkable power enabling me to relate to a state of mind I rarely share to such a degree, and conveying the poignancy of Sasha’s situation.

Jean Rhys seems to have been preoccupied with the idea of a woman adrift in an uncaring Paris, despite its romantic reputation, continually subjecting herself to casual misuse and abuse by men. This novel is the last of four on this subject, with the oldest variation on the theme in the form of Sasha.

I enjoyed the early flashback in which Sasha describes her brief stint working for a “dress-house”, a job gained as a favour. “Drugged” with boredom, she reflects on how successful the life-size dolls in the window would have been if real women: “satin skin, silk hair, velvet eyes, sawdust heart- all complete”, a sad comment on her experience of being casually objectified by men, a novel thought in the 1930s. This is followed by her growing sense of panic, induced by fear that the visiting English boss will see through her lack of qualifications for the job, her poor French. Ironically, she proceeds to make the very embarrassing error she fears through misunderstanding an instruction because of his dire accent.

Even in the bleakest moments of this sad novel, Jean Rhys creates a strong sense of place in Paris, and lightens the scene with acute observations, acerbic comments and a keen sense of tragi-comedy. Apparently, when the book was published, critics praised its style but felt it was too depressing to succeed. This drove the author into an absence from the writing scene for years, until the request to turn the book into a play restored her confidence and triggered her best-known and highly regarded novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, drawing on her own experience of being brought up in the West Indies, the daughter of a white Creole mother.

The impressionistic style and structure of “Good Morning Midnight” must have seemed quite original when first written. I wished it could have been applied to a more engaging plot, although I can see that it is an achievement to capture a state of mind so well. I was also struck by some striking, poetic expressions of everyday observations.

“There is a wind and the flowers on the window-sill, and their shadows on the (drawn) curtains are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness”.

The book’s title is culled from a poem by Emily Dickinson included below, which also seems to encapsulate Sasha’s position.

“Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!”

“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor: all in one’s nature

When thirteen-year-old “Rebecca, or Becky or Bex” goes missing from the National Park (probably Peak District) village where her family has been staying, police, helicopters and volunteers are deployed to comb the area, with frogmen searching the nearby numbered reservoirs, all to no avail. Ordinary life goes on, but even more than a decade later people continue to speculate as to what may have befallen her, and the story of her disappearance is sufficiently well known for the young friends who knew her in the village to be quizzed, much to their discomfort, when they go off to university.

As I believe has been the case in his early novels, Jon McGregor seems less concerned with the conventional plot-line of revealing how and why a crime occurred, and more interested in the relationships between his characters, in this case so numerous that it repays the effort of making a note of them from the outset, since they will all reappear at some stage.

In a kind of low key but subtly gripping soap opera, laced with insights, inferences and flashes of humour, he portrays couples getting together, splitting up, sometimes reconciling, people gaining and losing their jobs, dealing with the problems life brings, struggling to communicate, finding themselves, or not. The village customs, farming and surroundings are described in minute detail, on one hand the man-made activities of quarrying and reservoir maintenance which change continually, but also the closely observed world of nature with its seasonal rhythms, as indicated by the continual repetition in the book, and the “red in tooth and claw” violence involving foxes and badgers which goes unpunished, in contrast to the human world where people can only escape justice by concealing it.

I’m not sure whether Jon McGregor spends a long time experiencing the natural world or has done a great deal of research, but there are many beautiful, poetic passages. “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning”. “A heron hoisted into the air, hauling up its heavy wings, and letting its feet trail out as it flew” and so on.

Some readers may find the repetition of activities and phrases unendurable, and on occasion I was irked by yet more springtails (insect-like organisms) burrowing into yet another piece of rotten wood, and the reference to yet another “well-dressing”, clearly a tradition that could not be allowed to lapse. But I could see that all this was deliberate and necessary to convey the reality of life as time passed, just as each short section had to be written without paragraphs or speech marks, to avoid disrupting the flow of one’s concentration.

Jon Mcgregor is also very skilful in sustaining the tension, and sense of anticipation. Every walk in the woods with Nelson the dog, or drop in the level of the reservoir, could reveal some vital piece of evidence about Becky, which could of course be tantalisingly missed, or even lead to discovery of a body. His insistence on ambiguity may be hard to accept, but is again an aspect of real life. It also allows the reader who “wants to know what happened” to speculate on the clues gleaned.

April Lady by Georgette Heyer: Taking a gamble

April Lady by [Heyer, Georgette]

In Regency London, not quite nineteen-year-old Nell is desperate to obtain the sum needed to pay the bill for an expensive dress which she had forgotten when assuring her husband Cardross that she has no further outstanding debts. She is also consumed with guilt over lying to him over the use of her generous allowance to finance her brother’s losses at the gaming table, which her husband has forbidden her to do. Instead, she lets him think that she has foolishly  taken up gambling herself and incurred losses of her own. All this is making Cardross  regret having ignored the advice of friends who advised against his marrying  the daughter of an inveterate gambler who has ruined his aristocratic family with his addiction. The situation is aggravated by Nell’s concealment of her genuine love for her husband, as she follows her mother’s advice to be compliant at all times but not to appear too needy, and certainly not show any resentment over his mistress. Cardross also has to deal with a spoilt, capricious young half-sister, who is determined to marry a  respectable if dull but poor young man who is not her social equal. As matters reach a head, how will they be resolved?

Georgette Heyer was a prolific author, admired from the 1930s to her death in 1974 for  her immensely detailed knowledge of Georgian culture, even down to the upper class slang in vogue (now quite hard to follow and frankly the most irritating aspect of the novel). Reading this out of curiosity and expecting to find vacuous froth, I was surprised  how much it engaged me. Tightly plotted, it rattled along at a lively pace with well-developed characters.

I believe that Georgette Heyer was influenced strongly by Jane Austen, and  sacrilegious as it may sound, she holds her own in comparison. There is a clear parallel in the wry wit, although Heyer is actually much funnier.  She provides more detail of, for instance, customs which Jane Austen had no need to explain at the time, also tending to focus on upper class families, some even accustomed to socialising with the Prince Regent, whereas Austen’s theme was more often the lives of the country gentry.

Although I am not sure to what extent it is intentional, I like the way the author reveals the flaws in the aristocratic Regency world:  despite an obsession with conforming to expected norms and not lowering “the ton”, the idle rich fritter away their time gambling and flirting, particularly at masked balls. Even a “good”,  generous and loving husband thinks nothing of dominating and infantilising his young wife – also, he does not  apply his high moral standards to himself. A young man wastes his time on silly pranks because he is not expected to work at some activity which would employ his energy and ability, and so on.

If all Heyer’s  books are like this, reading them could pall quite quickly like too much cream meringue, but I would not regret reading her from time to time.

Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson

When her dividends dry up in the 1930a depression, Barbara Buncle sets about writing a book for publication to make ends meet, using the male pen-name of “John Smith” to cut more ice with the publisher. Since, to use her own words, she has “no imagination” this is inevitably about the doings of the inhabitants of her village of Silverstream, whom she has known for years. Mr. Abbott of Abbot and Spicer agrees to publish the book because the characters seem so real, and is also intrigued by the puzzle as to whether the author is writing subtly “tongue in cheek” or “a very simple person writing in all good faith” based on acute observation. The bestselling “Disturber of the Peace” provokes outrage among those who discover that they have been blatantly parodied in the clearly recognisable village which has been renamed “Copperfield”. They are determined to track down and punish “John Smith”, but even when some suggest that the author may be female, it does not occur to them that she might be the dowdy and insignificant Barbara Buncle. Under pressure from Mr. Abbot to write a second book, what will she reveal next, will she be exposed and, if so, with what outcome?

I was initially reluctant to read this for a book group, expecting it to be dated, trivial and at best provide a bit of escapism from the modern world. On one level, it is all these things, but is also an insight into a past way of life, and written with the same kind of clarity and humour as apparently employed by Miss Buncle, it carries the reader along.

Dorothy (D E) Stevenson wrote stories compulsively from her childhood onwards and became a prolific and successful novelist of mainly romantic fiction, since then fallen out of print for decades. It is interesting to speculate how she would have used her talent in different circumstances: if born a man like her father’s cousin Robert Louis Stevenson, she might have written adventure stories; if born now, she might have applied her fertile imagination to TV drama series. As it was, she followed the conventions of her time in which a widow living beyond her means could not think of finding a job but had to scheme to trap a wealthy husband; a vicar’s wife who found it extravagant to hire a taxi still had three servants and a nanny; men dominated their wives who had to resort to subtly manipulating them without appearing to; the two women who lived together were never explicitly referred to as lesbians, but the intelligent one who had never been allowed to get educated and develop her brain is shown playing the “male” role to support her weak and indecisive partner, and so on.

So, in writing about a world in which “the good ended happily and the bad unhappily – that is what fiction means”, Dorothy Stevenson is worth reading mainly for her humorous observation of human nature.

“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker – unimaginably distant times

The Silence of the Girls by [Barker, Pat]

In this retelling of the aftermath of the fateful argument between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan Wars, Pat Barker takes the viewpoint of Briseis, the high-born woman taken captive as part of the booty from the city of Lyrnessus. Having witnessed Achilles actively involved in the brutal killing of her husband and brothers, she suffers the further trauma of being accepted as his “sex slave”. She is scornful of the women who fawn on the men who possess them to wheedle favours, but knows there is a fine line between this and annoying Achilles so that he hands her over to the common soldiers to share, in what she describes as “a rape camp”. When Patroclus, the friend of Achilles with whom Briseis forms an unlikely friendship offers to persuade Achilles to marry her, she observes how it must appear shocking that she can contemplate such a course of action, yet when reduced to slavery one is prepared to consider almost any way of improving one’s lot.

No doubt hardened by her string of First and Second World War novels, Pat Barker does not flinch from describing scenes of great brutality in battle, alternating with the somewhat contradictory and ludicrous rituals to both desecrate and honour and the person one has killed. Yet her main interest is clearly the role of women in the Trojan wars, the stoical acceptance of their lot as they prepare food, wash clothes and care for the sick to keep the camp going.

The tone is often deliberately modern, colloquial, foul-mouthed, I assume in an attempt to draw parallels between people past and present, enabling us to identify better with the former as “real”. I agree with readers who find the attempt to punctuate an ancient legend with modern anachronisms jarring and who are irritated by the sudden switch part-way to the point of view of Achilles, which tends to undermine a distinct focus on the lives of the forgotten and undervalued women. This is not a feminist novel in the sense that women do not rise up in rebellion against their treatment, nor seriously question the constraints under which they have to live. Descriptions of roles in the camp are often quite dull, for that is what they were.

I found myself curiously unengaged by the book, perhaps because too many incidents rely on magic. So we see the capricious gods punishing the camp with a plague of rats since Agamemnon refuses to release his “bed woman” to her priestly father. Achilles is able to shout so loudly from the camp that his war-cry can be heard in Troy, causing strong men quake. Since he is in need of a suit of protective armour, his mother the goddess Thetis rises from the waves to supply him with a perfectly fitting and flexible one. Having slain Hector, he drags the body behind a chariot daily to dishonour it, only to find that the gods have “defied” him by restoring the corpse to its original state.

Although it is very readable and quite imaginative in reworking the “facts” of the Iliad, I am more impressed by Pat Barker’s books on C20 wars, which seem to provide greater scope for creative writing with character development and plot twists. As it is, Achilles seems merely moody and brutish, fated to die shortly as the price of becoming a legendary super killing machine; Patroclus is portrayed as implausibly empathetic and kind, since he massacres the enemy alongside Achilles without any evident qualms, and the nature of the relationship between the two remains blurred. Briseis is parcelled up like a commodity for a decent enough new husband who will protect her, so her feminism is limited to a C21 awareness of brutality and exploitation which she is unlikely to possess. The final chapter is disappointing: a rushed information dump of bloodthirsty violence to round off the tale.

 

“Mrs Osmond” by John Banville – over-egged pastiche when would have preferred author’s own voice

This is my review of “Mrs Osmond” by John Banville

John Banville’s sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James develops the plot further to explore Isabel Osmond’s response to the bitter realisation that her husband has married her solely for her money and has been concealing from her a sordid and humiliating secret. I felt at a disadvantage at first in not having read “The Portrait of a Lady”, since this would have enabled me to gauge the degree of Banville’s success in attempting to mirror James’s style. Yet, knowing the details of the original would have spoiled my enjoyment of the way John Banville gradually reveals the details of what has led to Mrs Osmond’s distress.

Although it seems acceptable for a writer to produce a prequel or sequel to a deceased author’s work, I am less sure about artistic method of trying to imitate his style – a painter who tried to produce pictures in the style of Monet would after all be condemned as “derivative”. I agree with reviewers who feel that Banville has “over-egged” his efforts to emulate James – his convoluted flights of fancy often weighted down with unrelenting alliteration and jarring metaphors, to the point of seeming ludicrous and digestible only in small quantities, unrelieved by James’s subtlety and excuse in having been born in an earlier age when what we now regard as flowery speech and excessive refinement were the norm for the privileged classes: “Her thoughts moved in large, loose loops, but at least once every round they revisited, like a planet at its perihelion, the question of what precisely Miss Janeway’s portentious remark might have been meant to mean”.

Or to take a more irritating overworked passage: “Europe had been her fate, and so it was still. Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life on the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it. Her aunt was not to blame that she was lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. And so on.

I would have preferred this novel written more in Banville’s is own dry, pithy style which kept sprouting through the verbiage to hint at what might have been. There are some strong dialogues, as in the scene where Isabel confronts her reptilian husband, with detailed descriptions which almost read like stage directions. The portrayal of Isabel’s mental confusion, her veering between weakness and decision, her desire for revenge but shrinking from descending to the level of Gilbert Osmond and his mistress are often well expressed. There is some humour, as in the portrayal of Isabel’s maid Staines, or the daunting lunch served by the vegetarian suffragist Miss Janeway: “boiled broccoli, boiled beans and boiled spinach” eaten “in silence save for irrepressible herbivoral crunchings”. On the other hand, too many characters, like the unscrupulous Madame Merle seem like caricatures or appear two-dimensional.

I wanted to know what would happen, uncertain whether the outcome would be tragic, or not amount to much at all, but found it hard to cope with more than a few chapters at a time. In fact, the ending was as abrupt as James’s and even less conclusive, to the extent of seeming “a bit of a cop out” on Banville’s part.