Review: The Infinities: John Banville

I was pleased to receive The Infinities through the post, having been impressed with John Banville’s recent novels, particularly his last book, The Sea, which won the 2005 Man Booker prize.  Banville has become well-known for the sheer quality of his writing, which is perhaps not surprising in view of his statement that he only writes about 100 words a day (see his Wikipedia entry).

The Infinities is a delight to read, a book which for once I found wholly satisfying.  It is the story of one day in the life of a family, but told from the perspective of Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia the cave-woman.  The narrative takes place both here on earth and also among a group of carping, capricious Gods, mischievously intervening in the affairs of men.

Both worlds collide throughout the novel, and Hermes both interprets what is going on in the family below, but also deals with the dramas above, particularly those caused by his reprobate old father who is obsessed with the young women he sees on earth.  For the Gods “cannot resist revealing ourselves to you once in a while, out of our incurable boredom, or love of mischief, or that lingering nostalgia we harbour for this rough world of our making”.

The story opens with the patriarchal Adam Godley having suffered a stroke and being confined, comatose, to a darkened room where his wife cares to his needs.  The family have gathered to observe the final days of their parent, the ponderous Young Adam and his lovely wife Helen, the daughter Petra, a couple of retainers (cook and gardener), and two guests who turn up to stay with the family for reasons largely unknown.

Young Adam and Helen take centre stage for a while and Hermes, the narrator, delights in revealing details of their private lives, while his father, the God of all Gods (who he affectionately calls “Dad”) visits Helen in the body of her husband and ravishes her in a night of unbridled passion, having instructed Hermes to hold back the dawn for a whole hour.  To Helen, this has all happened in a dream in which her husband has been transformed into something rather more impressive than his hum-drum reality.  For this is at times a bawdy romp, and these gods are far from “spiritual” in the the accepted sense of the word.

The narrative moves through the other family members and guests and John Banville creates some fine scenes, both hilarious and moving, often at the same time.  We discover that Adam Godley’s coma is not quite all it seems and as Hermes delves into the various characters we find that none of them are quite as they appear on first impression.  Mysteries are explored, new information is imparted bit by bit, and by the end we realise that we have been on a fascinating journey of discovery through the Godley’s day, reaching a higly satisfying conclusion.

From the first page I was drawn into this wickedly comedic novel.  Hermes is an intelligent and insightful narrator and his many interjections and comments add much humour to the events which go on below.  He also adds a god-side view of this planet, from time to time launching into lyrical descriptions of life on earth:

Of all the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.  When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally.  It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day.  What silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy.

Banville’s well-crafted prose is a delight throughout this book and as someone who appreciates fine writing, I found this book a pleasure to read.  I suspect that The Infinities is set to become a very well-known book and look forward to charting its progress from its release on 4 September 2009.

2 comments to Review: The Infinities: John Banville

  • Great review Tom. I read this on my holiday last week and have just posted my own review, and so thought I’d check out you, Lisa and any other bloggers who’ve done it. Must say I enjoyed the read but found it a slippery thing to write about. You’ve done it well and succinctly! It’s my second Banville and I’ll happily read more.

  • Tom

    Sue – I published an early draft by mistake – oops. The full review is there now. Thanks for visiting

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