The Reserve by Russell Banks

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The Reserve by Russell Banks

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Romance-cum-thriller set in 1930s America. A craftsmanlike, if unspectacular piece of storytelling.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747593676

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Russell Banks is a respected, prizewinning American author. I suspect he is better known in the States than in the UK. The Reserve is his eleventh novel, and several of his previous works have been made into successful films. He lives in upstate New York, the setting for this meticulously-told story of secrets, lies and the clash of classes and cultures.

The Reserve of the title is an isolated lakeside retreat deep in the forests of the Adirondack mountains. It is the discreet, exclusive preserve of retired ambassadors, businessmen and wealthy surgeons like Dr Carter Cole. The novel opens upon a civilised soirée held by Dr Cole for a few friends in 1936. Into this gathering flies acclaimed artist Jordan Groves, piloting his seaplane onto the lake and into the life of Vanessa, Dr Cole's stunningly beautiful socialite daughter.

This privileged idyll is soon shattered by Dr Cole's death from a heart attack. The ensuing drama exposes the deceptions upon which this apparently perfect way of life is built.

Banks sets out his narrative conventionally enough – an omniscient narrator tells the story in the third person and in the past tense. Scenes are clearly and evocatively described, with the natural backdrop particularly effectively depicted. Banks pays particular attention to clothes and physical features. The story unfolds systematically, each revelation building a sense of inexorable progress towards a tragic conclusion. The only interruptions to this are short 'flash-forward' chapters which take us on a year from the main action, slowly revealing the ultimate fate of the two main characters.

This storytelling method makes reading the novel like looking into the back of an exquisitely wrought watch, its intricate mechanism perfectly revealed. As a result, in contrast to its earthily naturalistic setting, The Reserve seems clinical in its construction.

That's not to say that the style of its telling impedes the progress of the plot. It is effortlessly readable and the reader is never in any doubt about what is going on. We are afforded glimpses into the histories, emotional lives and thoughts of the characters. Banks is also careful to weave in the political and social context of his protagonists, so we infer that the action is inseparable from greater forces and movements.

The peril of such methodical writing is that characters risk being little more than types. The artist Jordan Groves a pugnacious, yet sophisticated amalgam of Paul Gaugin and Ernest Hemingway; Vanessa Cole, the willowy debutante. There's a even a relationship with one of the local forest guides which is straight out of Lady Chatterley's Lover. However Banks does largely overcome such pitfalls and his characters accrue enough individuality to transcend stereotyping.

The result is an enjoyable, believable, but never truly gripping, tale. The ills of society and the spectre of child abuse slot into the plot while never feeling organically integrated. It is clearly the work of a masterful storyteller with total command of his material; but it rarely exceeds the sum of its scrupulously assembled parts.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might enjoy Crusaders by Richard T Kelly.

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