The Newton Letter by John Banville

published 1982

She came down to the lodge the day after I moved in, bringing me a bowl of brown eggs. She wore corduroy trousers and a shapeless homemade sweater. Her blonde hair was tied at the back with a rubber band. Pale eyebrows and pale blue eyes gave her a scrubbed look. With her hands thrust in her pockets she stood and smiled at me. Hers was the brave brightness of all big awkward girls.

“Grand eggs,” I said.

We considered them a moment in thoughtful silence.

“Charlotte rears them,” she said. “Hens, I mean.”

I went back to the box of books I had been unpacking. She hesitated, glancing about. The little square table was strewn with my papers. Was I writing a book or what? – as if such a thing were hardly defensible. I told her. “Newton,” she said, frowning. “The fellow that the apple fell on his head and he discovered gravity?”

She sat down.

observations: We’ve been here before: the landed Protestant gentry of Ireland, living out their no-longer-relevant lives in genteel poverty in once-grand houses. They, and the houses, have not kept up and are now faded. Molly Keane, Annabel Davis-Goff and Elizabeth Bowen are among those who have written so well about these situations. But all is not as it seems in Banville’s book, and 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.

The book is short and masterful, less than 100 pages, and you can race through it wanting to know what happens, but also wishing you could linger over the wonderful writing. There are lines that seem to refer to Yeats: ‘light of evening, the tall windows – Oh, a gazelle!’ – (the original poem is on the blog here) and maybe there are other such references that I missed. There are lines like this:
In the city of the flesh I travel without maps, a worried tourist: and Ottilie was a very Venice.
And this description of two men, hiding in the kitchen from a children’s party:
We stood there, like a couple of timid trolls, listening to the party noises coming down the hall.
There is also a very mysterious sentence: 
I ate a leaf of lettuce, at my back that great rooted blossomer, before me the insistent enigma of other people.
I consulted a fellow-reader, who came up with the excellent theory that the rooted blossomer is Newton – something to do with the apple tree. (But it still reads strangely.)

The narrator has rented the lodge of a big house in the south of Ireland to work on his book. He gets involved in the lives of the family up at the big house – a married couple, the young woman above, and a child. He thinks about his book, about Newton’s life and beliefs, and he wonders about his neighbours, imagining he can see what is going on in their lives, and getting involved.

He is like the narrator in Wuthering Heights, the outsider doomed to misunderstand. Like Newton, he fails to allow for relativity, for perspective.

Reading the book twice is easy, immensely rewarding, and possibly essential.

The young woman above is not blonde, but the photo – taken by Bryson Jack for the Ministry of Information and showing a Land Girl in 1944 – was too beautiful not to use. The picture (doesn’t it look like an oil painting?) is now at the Imperial War Museum. Because of the limitations of blogger, I couldn't get it to display at the size I wanted. So I have done something I never do: used a large cropped version and the full version too, which I think is perfectly composed, but too small here.

With thanks to the lender and fellow-reader.


  1. Doubt I'll be reading this. I have tried one of his Benjamin Black's and enjoyed it, with a couple more lurking.
    My dad used to read Keane and Bowen, as well as many others...Walter Macken, Maeve Binchy, Flann O'Brien (Myles na gCopaleen) among others.

    1. That's exactly the same bookshelf we had at home. I find the Benjamin Black books a bit dark and cheerless, but he is a very good writer.

  2. Moira - Like Col, I've read some of his work as Benjamin Black. I really do like his writing style. As for this one, it sounds like an interesting portrait of a group of people. And anyone who can tell a really good story in less than 100 pages deserves my attention! :-)

    1. Yes exactly Margot - he's a clever man, although sounds a bit grumpy.

  3. This sounded attractive from the start, but when I saw it was less than 100 pages, well that seals it, I will have to try it some day. I have tried the first Benjamin Black novel, and did not really care for it. Too glum, I think. But I do have another and will try that one.

    1. You can read it in an afternoon, Tracy, which is excellent! I read two of the Benjamin Black's and then gave up - I found them too dreary, and did not enjoy the writing the way I did in his straight novels.


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