John Banville
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Buy *Birchwood* by John Banville online

John Banville
176 pages
May 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In this very short book, perhaps better called a novella, Banville uses a modified stream-of-consciousness style that immediately picks the reader up and drops her into a complicated family with dark secrets living on a disintegrating Irish estate. Our guide is Gabriel, the only son and heir to Birchwood, who lives there with his father, whose violent fits of temper are slowly driving his mother insane; his crochety old grandmother, who will never move past her resentment for his mother; his senile grandfather; his aunt, whose schemes are just beneath the surfac; and his cousin, his aunt's son, whose preternatural awareness and coldness make him deeply disturbing.

The first part of the novella focuses on Gabriel's childhood - his negotiation of the stormy household politics as well as his exploration of the estate and surrounding Irish serfs. He tells many stories of barely believable eccentricities and dwells on his childhood love for Rosie, a stout little serf. As he grows, he begins to pick up on a mystery surrounding his birth, and he finally comes to believe that he has a missing twin sister. Thus, he runs away from home to find her. The second part is devoted to his adventures away from home. He quickly joins a small traveling circus, whose members are as eccentric as his family, and more stories ensue. Meanwhile, the countryside is becoming more and more violent as the oppressed Irish decide to rise up against the English elite. Finally, Gabriel finds his way back to Birchwood for a final confrontation, when he'll discover the truth.

Banville uses his narrator's voice effectively. As Gabriel jumps from memory to memory, his tone stays consisten, and the reader soon falls into an easy pattern. The plot is found mainly in the complicated relationships between his family in the first part and the circus members in the second. And those relationships are gothic at its highest: there's incest, a mentally retarded girl, ignored babies, and all the other attributes of a melodramatic tale. Indeed, the reader will probably quickly determine what the plot's twist is. When spelled out, the book sounds silly, but its saving grace is its tone. Verging on magical realism, in many ways reminscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novella's matter-of-fact acceptance of the outlandish makes it seem more normal to the reader. Also, its shortness means it can be read in a single sitting, so that the reader can easily become lost in Gabriel's world.

Additionally, it's simply beautifully written. The sentences feel like melodies. Take the following passage:

"In the early hours of the morning I was awakened by distant cries and, most incongrous of sounds, the clanging of a bell. A red light danced on the wal above my bed. I lay for a while without stirring, fuddled with sleep. A voice which seemed to be i nthe room with me said, very calmly, here it comes, and the bell banged louder, and there was the rattle of hoofs and the grate of steel-rimmed wheels on gravel. I stuggled up and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. The glasshouses flowed with ruby light. The hayshed was on fire. Rosie-the bitch!"
There's something magical about Banville's deft balance of prose.

Birchwood will appeal to readers who enjoy lyrical English and stylized fiction, and who don't mind that there isn't much of a plot.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Eva Kay, 2008

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