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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language that sings
One common adage in books about writing is to "kill the babies," in other words, get rid of those eloquent and delicious similes or turns of phrase that are will arrest the reader and pull him or her out of the story. Well, Banville violates this principle left and right, much to the delight of at least this particular reader. There is hardly paragraph, much less a page,...
Published on January 9, 2006 by Ulf Wolf

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not his best
But better than most, stylistically it's a joy from beginning to end. Plot-wise from middle to end. Still worth a look, a hard, long look.
Published 19 months ago by Jason Martin Graff


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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language that sings, January 9, 2006
By 
Ulf Wolf (Crescent City, California) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
One common adage in books about writing is to "kill the babies," in other words, get rid of those eloquent and delicious similes or turns of phrase that are will arrest the reader and pull him or her out of the story. Well, Banville violates this principle left and right, much to the delight of at least this particular reader. There is hardly paragraph, much less a page, that does not stop you cold you with image or simile or metaphor or simply brilliant construction, and you gladly forgive him each and every time.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the English language. It is written by someone who probably loves it even more.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Snail-Trail, December 12, 2006
By 
Daniel Myers (Greenville, SC USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
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This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
Yet another book by John Banville that one can only characterise as a work of art - Why this is so is hard to explain to the uninitiate. Banville's prose is both subtle and oceanic. Above all, it is seductive. Things always seem to begin simply enough in his works. But, somewhere along the way, one is taken suddenly by the realisation that s/he is under the spell of a virtuoso, a master craftsman, nay, a magician of sorts who turns every subject that falls under his pen into a work of high literary art.

The plot, such as it is, has been covered by the other reviewers. I have just a couple addenda: I'm not so sure that this book and Ghosts are sequels, as such, to The Book of Evidence or if it's particularly important if they are. Banville's narrator, especially in Ghosts, is much-taken with the notion of multiple or parallel universes. That seems to me the best way to read these works, as following Mr. Montgomery into entirely different worlds. ----Also, a bit of a personal peeve, one wishes one could get through a Banville work without his using the term "flocculent" to describe everything from clouds to pubic hair (herein). But this is a quibble.

Below a couple citations of Banvillian prose here:

The light in the room, the colour of tarnished tin, was the light of childhood. I would see again afternoons like this in the far past and myself as a child at a window watching the day fail and the rooks settling in the high, bare trees and the rain like time itself drifting down. p.151

But this is how I want it to be, all smeary with tears and lymph and squirming spawn and glass-green mucus: my snail-trail. P.220

And so it is, a lulling, seductive, dark snail-trail of poetic prose to the narrator's beloved. Follow it!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bizarre Baroque, July 3, 2008
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
The old dilemma: award stars according to the author's mastery (close to 5) or to reflect my own enjoyment of the book (2 or 3 at most)? There, right on the front cover, is a quotation from the San Francisco Chronicle: "A thriller... by Ireland's master of the exquisite and uncanny whose brilliant use of prose narration places him in a league with Joyce and Beckett." True -- yet it made me reflect what a dubious legacy Joyce bequeathed to Irish intellectuals who followed after.

"My love. If words can reach whatever world you may be suffering in, then listen...." The book begins in words, with this incantation, and it continues in words. Not events, not characters, not time and place, not even any tangible reality, but words pure and by no means simple, creating the atmosphere of a dream that may at any moment turn into nightmare, words spun out, questioned, erased, words rich in apparent meanings that the next moment may well be denied. The narrator must have a past, but we are not told what it is; even his name, Morrow, is assumed, chosen almost at random and since regretted. His love is referred to within the same paragraph sometimes as "she" and sometimes as "you"; he calls her "A... It's not even the initial of her name, it's only a letter, but it sounds right, it feels right." The town house in which they meet seems impossibly vast at first description, though later it shrinks to more more normal proportions. Although some facts and details eventually emerge from the swirling verbal fog, the prevailing atmosphere is one of hallucination. Banville is indeed a master of words, but he uses them less to pin down normal meanings than to create a shifting web in which meaning itself is questioned.

Nonetheless, several narrative strands do begin to come visible; quite separate at first, they gradually intertwine, but never become entirely connected. The narrator appears to be some kind of expert in Flemish baroque art, and he is called in to authenticate some paintings in an old deserted house. On the fringes of this are a number of lowlife characters (many of them quite bizarre), a hovering police presence (called "Guards" in Ireland), a possible theft, and some unexplained murders. The narrator also looks after his Aunt Corky, a woman of equally mysterious background, who is in some kind of home. But his most significant relationship is with A -- an erotic obsession that escalates through physical passion into some of the darker reaches of sexuality; these sections are among the best in the book, because at least they use the realities of flesh to anchor vagaries of feeling. Another kind of quasi-objective anchor is provided by the catalogue descriptions of various paintings that come in between the chapters. But even these artworks are displaced; although supposedly painted by artists from the Low Countries (all imaginary), their themes from classical mythology are more typical of the Italian Baroque. Yet the progression of subjects, with their undertones of eroticism and violence, parallel the narrator's developing obsession in a way that, to an art historian, may actually be clearer than the main narrative.

The one negative in my review of Banville's Man Booker prizewinning novel, THE SEA (written ten years after ATHENA, in 2005), was a certain self-consciousness about the style; however, as it becomes apparent that the narrator is a writer, we come to understand that stylistic fingerprints such as questioning his word-choices or narrative technique reflect on the character, not on Banville. But in ATHENA, we never learn much about the background of the man who calls himself Morrow, so the same stylistic tricks seem more like the author showing off. If you admire verbal legerdemain and have a liking for Mannerism or the Baroque, certainly give the book a try. But it is not for everyone. [The color cover of the Vintage paperback edition, incidentally, is entirely misleading. Its bland watercolor portrait is the polar opposite of Banville's highly-wrought style, and its subject totally lacks the fascination of the erotic earth-spirit in the book.]
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A delicious and sexy book of obsession., February 19, 1999
This review is from: Athena
Banville proves that Nabokov is not the only author who can envelope a reader in a plot of sensuality and obsession. Each reader who has had a tragic love affair (real or imagined) will see themself in this story of self deception.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating language., April 20, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
Banville writes exquisitely. Athena should be read slowly, like a fine meal. Interested readers might be advised to read his Book of Evidence, then Ghosts, before turning to this one.
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Open To Interpretation, December 31, 2000
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
This is the 4th work by Mr. John Banville that I have read, and I am nearly finished with his fifth. There is much that is factual about this writer, amongst these would be, his intellect, his range as a writer, and the competency he writes with while ranging through very different subject matter and material. As others have noted he is adept with metaphor. I feel his talent is not that he uses the device so frequently, but does so with such a subtle touch, it is more akin to absorbing his thoughts, as opposed to checking them off, or making a list.
This is easily the most difficult of his works that I have been through. This is not because he is vague, or style overrides substance. He is clear in what he says; placing it all into proper context and order is another matter. I do not suggest this book is an exercise in chaos. I do feel it is a reading experience that is in fact as far from definitive as the book jacket suggests it to be. Another reader has suggested that prior to reading this book that, "Ghosts", and "Book Of Evidence", should be read first. I am sufficiently unsure that I came away from the book with the Author's entire message, so if you can read the other two first, it may help.
Primarily written in the first person in the voice of, "Morrow", a new name to distance himself from a past, allows the reader to listen in as he recounts his period of time with, "A". At times we witness events in the present, but more frequently we are told of what has already taken place, what decisions were made and why. Just the explanation of how Morrow arrived at his new name will either bore you, or entice you into Mr. Banville's narrative style. For Morrow nearly everything is the result of, or likened to another, be it an event, a person, a name, or a moment in time. The relationships he devises are indicative not of a man who was an unsuccessful felon, but more of a mind bordering on that of an Oxford Don.
Regardless of how well educated our narrator is, he is also willing to engage in a relationship with "A" that evolves into what some may compare to Nabokov, although this time age is not the issue. And then there are the balance of the cast all that are creatures that might be termed, "Banvillian", just as Marley and Drood are classified Dickensian. Dickens players had their kinks just as Banville's do, although Banville's are closer to seriously bent than kinked.
The plot line that is sketched on the jacket of our Morrow and some paintings of dubious status together with a mention of "A" does not begin to explore the depths of this work. As has been the case with all the books I have read, his writing is so well constructed, his characters so well detailed, that even if the surface storyline is as far as you choose to go, you will be rewarded. However, to do so would cheat you, of all that is there to be interpreted, and all that is almost there, or almost definitively referred to.
This Author's more existential work may be more of an acquired taste, than, "Doctor Copernicus", or, "Kepler". In any event any reader who enjoys talented writing will find time well used that is spent with Mr. Banville's work.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Landscapes of devotion & desolation, December 6, 2005
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
I read this after "The Book of Evidence" had introduced Freddie Montgomery, in this sequel of sorts out of prison and under an assumed name continuing his forays into the art world's underworld. Descriptions of various paintings he analyzes in the style--at least in the first few--of a catalogue raisonne make for a challenge, as it forces you as the reader to imagine what FM conjures up by words from what he only sees as art. It makes for a great distancing effect, one that another novelist might have undercut if he had insisted upon including (cf. W.G. Sebald's entries of prose, postcard, photo within his similarly undefinable free-floating books of associations--the comparison is not meant to criticize Sebald) reproductions themselves.

This book's less witty, and brims less with black humor, than "The Book of Evidence." Reading it for the erotic bits would be akin to picking up Joyce's "Ulysses" or Beckett's prose for their sexual scenes. Like his Irish predecessors, Banville chooses to focus not on the act so much as the desire, and this makes for more elusive, if more realistic--a word not otherwise applicable to this mise-en-scene--sensation. You do hang suspended in the introspective, self-absorbed, obsessively ruminating realm that Freddie creates. Perhaps only the philosophically or aesthetically rarified few readers will persevere. Still, Booker Prize winner that Banville now is, perhaps more will make the effort to explore his past fictional landscapes of devotion and desolation.

The ending, as with many of Banville's novels since the 1990s, gives a twist, here only in the very last pages. It did surprise me a bit, but not that much, for Banville's narrator throughout's a slippery character among many just--if not more--as chameleonish. This does make for some imprecision that weakens slightly the storyline in its final resolution. This shape-shifting milieu I wished had been clarified a bit more than it is, and the welcome reappearance of Inspector Hackett is not as sustained as this character deserves. Yet on the whole, readers of Banville will be satisfied again by this installment. His character of Aunt Corky, in her slow decay, is as funny and as harrowing a figure as he has ever attempted to sketch out and then fill in on these pages.

As I have in my other responses via Amazon to Banville's books, I want to include a couple of my favorite snippets to show you his command of what he evokes in his spare but detailed style. First, as he delves into "this Bermuda Triangle of the soul," he addresses his appeal to A., the recipient of this book-length outpouring of longing. Freddie's extended letter of love and loss and lust, who represents the "ineffable mystery of the Other (I can hear your ribald snigger); that is what I have plunged into again as into a choked Sargasso Sea wherein I can never find my depth. In you I thought my feet at last would reach the sandy floor where I could wade weightlessly with bubbles kissing my shins and small things skittering under my slow-motion tread. Now it seems I was wrong, wrong again." (47)

Later as he recalls his embraces of A., now speaking to her as in the third person: "devouring her slowly, minutely, as in an enraptured cannibalism of the senses. How palely delicate she was. She glimmered. Her skin had a grainy, thick texture that at times, when she was out of sorts, or menstrual, I found excitingly unpleasant to the touch. Yes, it was always there, behind all the transports and the adoration, that faint, acrid, atavistic hint of disgust, waiting, and reminding. This I am convinced is what sex is, the anaesthetic that makes bearable the flesh of another. And we erect cathedrals upon it." (121)

Certainly the polarities of attraction and repulsion have been diagrammed in so many books for so many millennia, but here once more I believe Banville shows his skill in making such magnetism and rejection fresh and as powerful as they have been expressed in Joyce or--here especially--Beckett.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not his best, March 8, 2013
By 
Jason Martin Graff (Boston, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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But better than most, stylistically it's a joy from beginning to end. Plot-wise from middle to end. Still worth a look, a hard, long look.
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5.0 out of 5 stars For all those people who want their romances to have all the realism, without all that pesky reality, March 15, 2014
This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
Sometimes I think the hardest concept to explain to people who don't write about the act of writing itself is the idea of presentation, that just because a story essentially boils down to "this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and then it turned out it was the dog all along" doesn't mean you have to write it that way. Many a person has an amazing idea for a plot but doesn't quite grasp that you can tell me what happened, but that doesn't mean I'm going to find it all that interesting if you don't dress it up a little bit. Good ideas don't automatically translate into gripping reading. Just like my parents told me when I drew my awesome schematics for my volcano science project in elementary school: if you want it to come out right, you're going to have to put some effort into it.

Banville seems to understand effort. In fact, sometimes he comes across as having made it his life's goal to make us aware of just how many words exist in the English language, and how they can be used in a sentence. I'd be surprised if he ever used the same description twice, at least not intentionally. It makes for oddly rich reading, as if every other author you've been reading prior to this has only be using half the colors available in the palette, like Dorothy wandering out into Oz.

However, there is a fairly thin line between "marvelously descriptive" and "tediously overwritten". That line is probably going to be different for everyone depending on your taste and there's probably a subset of people trying to read any of his novels that is tempted to throw it across the room in frustration screaming, "Just say he's in a hotel room already!" Still, it is difficult to call a novel that is a hair under two hundred and fifty pages "bloated" by any yardstick and points to one of Banville's greatest strengths: it's not how many words you know, it's knowing the right place to use them.

Thus: the plot. A semi-crooked man with a shady past who narrates our story is recruited by even shadier people to authenticate some paintings they have stashed away and are probably not planning on selling to the local gallery. Meanwhile, he runs into a woman and becomes obsessed with her, despite knowing absolutely nothing about her, not even her name. Sometimes it seems like the cops are onto him, sometimes it seems like he's in a dangerous world that has put him in over his head. Meanwhile, he's tangled up in prose. Oh, and his aunt is sick.

See, that doesn't sound terribly exciting. Mix some of the basic elements up and add about seven hundred pages and it could be William Gaddis' "The Recognitions", but with a slightly higher chance for car chases (don't get your hopes up, though). Yet Banville manages to make it all compelling through the use of his prose, which seems determined to plunge the reader into a languid, dream-like affair, held together by a narrator who seems to drift in and out of his own story, sometimes settling into a scene with a startlingly concrete presence, and other times anchored to absolutely nothing at all. There's hints that he could be the same narrator that graced some of Banville's other novels but that's not really a requirement here (good, because I read those several years back and don't remember the details), instead you're just asked to go along with events, like being blindfolded with a ratty cloth and forced to fill in the details from the splashes of blurry light that you catch as you're jostled down dingy hallways, all the while listening to someone describe to you exactly what he sees. Thing is, he could be lying. Or maybe you just can't see very well.

Plunging us in a world where it seems to be constantly on the verge of dusk no matter what time of day it is, there isn't much to grasp and so the book has to succeed on both mood and pacing. Which it does. The hazy nature of the narrative allows Banville to shift the scene pretty much at will, and when we're tired of the elusive sexual shenanigans of our narrator and his single-lettered sort of lover, we can have some criminals show up. And when the vague hints of something bad about to happen linger for too long and start to lose their edge, maybe some police inspectors can come by, or we have some fun with his dying aunt. In a sense it becomes not unlike a playland created by children under a blanket, where every fold can bring about another scene no matter which way you turn, held together by a playful dream-logic where everything makes sense because absolutely nothing makes sense. It doesn't go to David Lynch levels of absurdist surrealism, but it seems to hover right on the edge of it, with one foot existing enough in the real world that we can start to think, "oh, maybe this is really happening."

It's not even the kind of story where you mind that the ending isn't so much an ending as everyone deciding the story is over, like parents calling all their kids back into the house because it's getting late. There's a risk with this of letting the story go on for too long that all the ambiguity becomes more annoying than anything else. At this length, all the muscles and tendons lay nicely over the skeleton, with the increasingly unhinged reviews of paintings I've never seen a particular highlight, as the narrator feels things boiling to a fever pitch, even if the fever winds up becoming dissipated in a chill night. But it hardly matters. The images linger, like being surprised that a hand pressed that lightly into skin can leave such a mark. It's a testament to how just any old set of words won't do, and even if the narrator never seems to be totally in control, you never doubt that the author is. Skill and craft do count for something. If I tried to write a story based on this plot, it would come across as an inept documentary put together by well-meaning preschoolers. In his hands, it winds up being the dream that doesn't quite startle you enough to wake you up, but lingers long enough to make you wonder if you ever did wake up completely.
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most perfect of John Banville's novels., January 14, 2014
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This review is from: Athena (Paperback)
ATHENA is a marvelous tale of mystery and love. Once again, Banville's intelligent, poetic language seduces the reader, as the shadowy femme fatale in the mysterious empty house draws the narrator deeper into the excitement of forbidden amours. At the same time, the parallel plot of his relationship to (also mysterious) aging aunt Corky softens the character of the narrator and redeems him. I've read eight or ten of his wonderful prose concoctions, and ATHENA is my favorite.
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Athena
Athena by John Banville (Paperback - May 28, 1996)
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