‘Athena’ by John Banville

Athena book coverJohn Banville certainly pulls it off for me in Athena (London: Minerva, 1996) with his tale in the form of a love letter, told by an introspective loser with a past that burdens him and little expectations of the future; a tale of art theft, forgery, fraud and lust (you can see why it appeals to me) played out against the background of late 20th century Dublin. The narrator tells us very early on that his name, Morrow, is his new alias and as the tale unfolds we pick up the subtle hints of a past he would like to shrug off and, if only he could, forget. He has used his ‘past’ to become an expert in Art History, especially the 17th century, and this, he thinks, is why he has been pulled in by a ‘developer’ to appraise and authenticate a group of paintings. That just such a group of paintings has been recently stolen from a private collection is something we become aware of.

Other fascinating Dublin characters, worthy of Joyce, populate the pages. The cross-dressing Da, master villain, Inspector Hackett who pursues the several villains, Aunt Corky, his rich, widowed elderly relative, and A (for A read Athena) who crosses Morrow’s path and swiftly becomes his lover. So, as if the complex story were not enough, punctuated by short but detailed descriptions of each of the paintings in the style of Gombrich, we have the added and wonderful element of Banville’s superlative craftsmanship with language which eddies and swirls across the pages, carrying the reader effortlessly along. The Sunday Times said of the book, ‘sleek, beautiful, breathtakingly cunning prose.’

Athena is a love letter to Morrow’s long-term passion for Art and his immediate and overwhelming passion for A. The plot twists and turn like a detective story and the only early clue that things might not turn out too badly is the information at the outset that Aunt Corky has left him all her money. Only a hint of Banville’s lovely language, his simple yet satisfying similes and his writer’s eye for the perfectly positioned phrase that draws the eye, the mind and the reader’s appreciation, is possible in this brief review.

With dusk comes rain that seems no more than an agglutination of the darkening air, drifting aslant in the lamplight like something about to be remembered. … I squirm like a slug in salt. … fighting my arms into my mackintosh as if it were a pair of recalcitrantly flaccid wings I was trying to put on. … The rain on the window whispered to itself, agog to know what we would do next. … The front door as I approached it across the hall had a pent-up, gloating aspect, as if it were dying to fly open and unleash on me a shouting throng of accusers.

Banville frequently creates the persona of a middle-aged man coping with loss, as in his Booker Prize winning The Sea and again in his recently published new novel The Blue Guitar which I have just added to my long, long reading list! Maybe I hanker to be middle-aged again, but, on reflection, maybe I don’t.

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