[The narrator, an artist, recalls how he met Polly when he went into her husband’s shop in his small home-town in Ireland]
I had come in with a watch for Marcus to repair. I can’t have been back in town for more than a week or two, she said. She was at her desk in the dim rear of the workshop, doing the books, and I glanced in her direction and smiled. I was wearing, she remembered, or claimed to remember, a white shirt with the floppy collar open and an old pair of corduroy trousers and shoes without laces and no socks. She noticed how tanned my insteps were, and straight away she pictured the resplendent south, a bay like a bowl of broken amethysts strewn with flecks of molten silver and a white sail aslant to the horizon and a lavender-blue shutter standing open on it all – yes, yes, your’re right, I’ve added a few touches of colour to her largely monochrome and probably far more accurate sketch.
observations: John Banville is everyone’s idea of an Irish writer: flamboyant in his words, sometimes grumpy and willing to pick a fight in real life, and in his books endlessly picking away at Irish life of the past 50 years, big Irish houses and small gatehouses and lodges well to the fore.
Some of his books are wonderful – The Newton Letter and The Untouchable are my favourites – and others less so. I was surprised and disappointed by his Booker-Prize-winning The Sea. And I don’t like his detective stories (written under the name Benjamin Black) at all – even though I’m a huge crime fan. And, as I said in an entry on The Newton Letter, ‘you can see why he turned to detective fiction later in life - he plants clues like the mistresses of crime, and even if you spot a clue you are likely to interpret it wrongly’. But his dreary Dublin copper doesn’t do it for me.
I like Oliver Otway Orme, the narrator of this book (his latest, out this week), much more. He is a classic Banville type – unreliable, untrustworthy, anxious to explain his endless awful wrong-doing. The author does these chaps so well, and makes you understand how they live on a certain kind of charm, and manage to go through life without being subject to justifiable homicide.
Oliver is telling the story to us, or some imaginary audience anyway:
The scene of the crime was Geppetto’s toyshop up a narrow lane off Saint Swithin Street – yes, these names, I know, I’m making them up as I go along….He is rather endearing with his obscure dictionary words and his made-up aphorisms and names.
It’s a story of love and marriage and affairs and betrayal and children, and Oliver has removed himself from the scene because he doesn’t know what to do next. The time scheme of the book skips about, and is very hard to follow, but you just have to go with the flow. The writing is beautiful, his descriptions and word-choices just perfect. He never says exactly where the book is set, just a small town in Ireland – but it might be Clonmel, from a reference to Oliver Cromwell. I love the casual mention of wolves in the area, and the fact that the café was called The Fisher King.
The book is funny and absurd and hugely clever and rather melancholy. I enjoyed it enormously.
The picture is from my go-to source for illos of artists: The Smithsonian Institute Archive of American Art. This is a sculptor called R Hinton Perry, who is remembered for refusing to pay alimony to his wife, and going to jail as a result.