cover image Athena


John Banville. Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (232pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40521-4

While beautifully written and filled with intriguing questions about the nature of truth and the reliability of memory, Banville's new novel is neither as emotionally compelling as The Book of Evidence nor as stylistically challenging as Ghosts, with which it forms a loose trilogy. Although his name is now Morrow, the narrator of this shadowy tale involving stolen paintings and a doomed love affair is probably--but only probably--Frederick Montgomery, the tortured protagonist of Evidence and the unnamed narrator of Ghosts. There are several references to the murder for which Montgomery was imprisoned, and if the narrator is not the same man, then why does Inspector Hackett recognize him and assume his knowledge of the artwork purloined from Whitewater House, scene of Montgomery's crime? In fact, the narrator, who apparently has some fine-art expertise, has been asked by the menacing underworld figure Morden to authenticate these paintings, eight 17th-century works whose subject matter--various stages in the ever-shifting balance of power between men and women--mirrors the progress of Morrow's affair with a mysterious woman he calls ``A.'' The couple's sexual games grow increasingly dangerous as the police close in on the stolen paintings, but nothing is what it seems: the artworks are forgeries--or are they? Morrow's lover is Morden's wife--or is she? Banville creates a dreamlike world of pervasive unease and a sense of loss fueled by the narrator's unspecified guilt (he may also be responsible for a series of gruesome murders), but the point of all this angst is never quite clear. Nonetheless, the novel's evocative physical detail and provocative metaphysical musings make an impact. (May)