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A roman à clef with some nice language, but underplotted and the characters are weak
on October 30, 2012
As most readers will already know, this is a fictionalized account of the life Anthony Blunt, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied for the Soviet Union. The book was highly recommended to me by friends who loved Banville's use of language, but while I found some of his turns of phrase to be insightful and novel, I don't think that's sufficient to carry a 360 page book.
Our narrator is (inevitably, in a book narrated by a spy), evasive and unreliable. Though the story spans about fifty years, we learn almost nothing about what the narrator was doing most of the time. At the end of his life, as he tells this story, he's more concerned with old relationships. The reader has some fun teasing out which of the characters are gay and which are spies (though, if you, like I, keep close tabs on what the narrator says about his friends, the book's big surprise ending will turn out to be too inartfully hidden to have any surprise as all). Without plot, one might find pleasure in the characters, but the truth is that few are described in any detail. Try to describe "Boy" or "Beaver" in anything other than the crudest factual descriptions; it can't be done. Can we guess how they would have responded to some stimulus outside the narrative? No. The characterizations are not paper-thin, but perhaps they are pancake-thin.
So the plot is thin, the characters are thin, the "surprises" at the end are thoroughly foreshadowed for a close reader (and in the case of the fate of the narrator, even for a casual reader). What's left? Some nice turns of phrase, enough for three stars out of five but no more.