John Banville, the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Sea and Ancient Light, now gives us a new novel—at once trenchant, witty, and shattering—about the intricacies of artistic creation, about theft, and about the ways in which we learn to possess one another, and to hold on to ourselves.
Equally self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating, our narrator, Oliver Otway Orme (“O O O. An absurdity. You could hang me over the door of a pawnshop”), is a painter of some renown and a petty thief who has never before been caught and steals only for pleasure. Both art and the art of thievery have been part of his “endless effort at possession,” but now he’s pushing fifty, feels like a hundred, and things have not been going so well. Having recognized the “man-killing crevasse” that exists between what he sees and any representation he might make of it, he has stopped painting. And his last act of thievery—the last time he felt its “secret shiver of bliss”—has been discovered. The fact that the purloined possession was the wife of the man who was, perhaps, his best friend has compelled him to run away—from his mistress, his home, his wife; from whatever remains of his impulse to paint; and from a tragedy that has long haunted him—and to sequester himself in the house where he was born. Trying to uncover in himself the answer to how and why things have turned out as they have, excavating memories of family, of places he has called home, and of the way he has apprehended the world around him (“one of my eyes is forever turning towards the world beyond”), Olly reveals the very essence of a man who, in some way, has always been waiting to be rescued from himself.
Readers will hang on to every word written by Man Booker Prize winner Banville (Ancient Light), because he knows their thoughts before they do. Narrating this tale is the curmudgeonly, melancholy, and hapless Olly Orme, who, "pushing fifty and a hundred," is back in the English village of his birth and suffering through a mid-life crisis. A modestly successful "paintster" who gives up painting for existential reasons ("What's the difference between a blimp and a guitar? Any old object serves..."), and a rather philosophical thief for whom the thrill of stealing eventually wanes, Olly stumbles through an affair with Polly, his friend Marcus's companion. When the lovers are found out, Olly runs away to the house where he was born, but is set upon by Polly and dragged to her own family home. A mad-hatter couple of days ensues in which Olly is tortured with cups of tea and English damp and for the first and last time is caught stealing, in this case a little volume of poetry bound in crimson cloth. When he finally escapes and encounters his sensible wife again, she reveals a secret of her own. Olly muses on each escapade, hilarious until such sadness sets in that no one inside or out of the story seems likely to survive it. And yet, Banville is such a fine architect of sentences infusing them with wit and yearning that the plot hardly matters. For what a brilliant navel-gazer Banville is: he creates loop-de-loops of self-absorbed prose that resonate so deeply about the human condition that they never become tiresome. Bon mots fill these pages, every one essential. "What we were sorrowing for was all that would not be, and that kind of vacuum, believe me, will suck in as many tears as you have to shed." If in the end readers believe they know Olly Orme, they will know themselves as well. "Make some lesson out of that, if you will; I haven't the heart."