The Infinities by John Banville

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The Infinities by John Banville

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A lush, high-falutin' style of looking at a family over one day, and their attendant Greek Gods, provides some classy fiction, but lacks a certain way in to make it more engaging and memorable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330450249

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Adam is being watched over by a god. No, not that Adam - this one is a young man, in his twenties, staring out the window at the midsummer's dawn breaking, in his old family home, where his father - Adam senior - lies comatose, dying from a stroke. And not that god, either - this is Hermes, who will be our narrator as the family (Adam's wife, mother, younger sister) wake up to the new day, and have cause to remember other times. We'll see also that Zeus, too, is one of the household gods - and is still doing his old, randy, visitation tricks.

The turning of an omniscient, omnipotent narrator into a god has been done before, but I don't think I've read a book where it has been fulfilled so well. Hermes can take the place of other people in the household, and can sit mid-air while conversations happen, only acknowledged by the family dog. He's there in everyone's thoughts, giving us what he wants us to know.

He has clearly been around a long time, as well, for he has certainly got to know the language. This brings what for me was a compellingly rich phrasing and vocabulary - other people might find it akin to the worst wine journalism, among other stereotypes. Hermes sees our casuistries, phthisic pallor and more. His familiarity with all the senses spreads to some extent to the human characters - Why is it, Adam jr wonders, that railway tracks always give off a smell of kitchen gas?. A doorknob is suavely cold.

Hermes is however not quite telling us everything - we can only wonder when this tale is set. It would appear to be the current times, although people wear an awful lot of corduroy, repair radios with Hilversum on them - and Adam senior has discovered an awful lot of physics, including workable nuclear fusion. This leads to an entr'acte that brings to mind the other occasions when readable books have turned literary by going cosmic and scientific - I forget the instances since Ian McEwan started it all, well over a generation ago.

This is quite a literary read throughout - with the wispy sense of narrator often changing point of view, the world changed from ours, and godlike hints that things will happen. In fact the promise of page 120 does not get carried out, so when it comes to why this book was unsettlingly hard to define in my mind, I have to include that tease.

The plot isn't the biggest - a few people arrive, depart, drift around each other over a lunch party mostly, and the selling point remains the impressions the whole gives us, and the huge depth of the characters - we really get into the heads of the family - and literally into the bodies of the other humans (and the dog).

But I didn't know in the end if we were expected to smirk at, scoff at or love these people. I think in the end I learned so much about them but I didn't find them my kin - and that wasn't because they weren't fully rounded people, and I don't think it was wholly because I was seeing them through the gods' eyes.

Possibly the style was getting too much in the way, however much I might have liked it. It certainly hid any slightness in story, as I say. I felt it a little unfair I was expected to see these personable persons through the interventions and points of view of the gods. This then might be quite a divisive read, really boiling down to personal taste. For fans of books with errant fates and the humans facing them, this might be heaven-sent. For me, a middling rating meant I didn't regret one page, but didn't have anything beyond the vocab I could put my finger down on as exemplary.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For more rich scenes set in a country house, you might well try The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse, while for a dying matriarch and her family reminiscing, there is the ever-interesting Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale to consider.

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