BOOK REVIEW / Getting away with murder, or without it: 'Ghosts' - John Banville: Secker, 14.99 pounds

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AT THE end of John Banville's previous novel, The Book of Evidence, the murderous narrator says of his victim: 'I killed her because I could kill her, and I could kill her because for me she was not alive. And so my task now is to bring her back to life. I am not sure what that means, but it strikes me with the force of an unavoidable imperative.' Whatever they thought it meant, few readers can have dreamt that Freddie Montgomery's words were to be taken literally, but Ghosts is nothing less than that unlikely, almost impossible sequel.

It is by no means immediately clear that this is the case. Indeed, reading Banville's text is to enter a realm of appearances and transformations, of shifting assumptions and vertiginous insubstantiality, where the details are clear but the design enigmatic. The book opens with a shipwreck on an island where there is a strange singing in the air. As the stranded castaways make their way towards the refuge of the island's reclusive savant, it begins to look as though we might be in for a version of The Tempest reflecting those aspects of the play expressed by the title of the Singspiel that Mozart was planning at the time of his death, Die Geisterinsel.

And indeed, the isle is haunted, but by whom? The issue is raised at the outset by a qualification over the number of newcomers: 'There are seven of them. Or better say, half a dozen or so, that gives more leeway.' The cast sport the sort of names favoured by the New Gothic school - Croke, Licht, Hatch - but there is nothing else exotic or sinister about them, with the possible exception of Felix, 'a thin, lithe, sallow man with bad teeth and hair dyed black and a darkly watchful eye'. As for the island, it is just an ordinary island. Once the high tide has refloated the ferry which a drunken skipper ran aground, the visitors - a party of sightseers from the mainland - can leave. In the meantime, they take refuge in the big isolated house which is home to the Professor and his assistant - and another, nameless presence.

It gradually transpires that this voice, distinguished by the first person and the present tense, is none other than that of the man who used to be Freddie Montgomery, now released from prison after serving a 10-year sentence for the gruesome and arbitrary events described in the earlier novel. It also emerges that the real - though by this stage the word is starting to wear an ironic smirk - model for the narrative is a painting by a minor Dutch master entitled Le monde d'or. Since the characters and their allegorical weight are identical in both versions, the resulting parallax makes it possible at long last to determine who has been haunting, and to understand the relationship between Felix and the narrator, as well as the nature of Freddie's act of atonement. But barely has this hard-won completion been achieved than the painting is revealed as a fake by the artist's mysterious double, the cast disperses and the book snaps shut.

Such artifice might easily prove irritating in a lesser writer, but John Banville can get away with murder - and without it, too. Despite the pain, the dread and the suffocating solipsism, this is a book one wishes to reread immediately. If the chronology of modern literature ranges between Joycean Mardi Gras and the perpetual Ash Wednesday of Beckett, then in Banville's work it is the small hours of the morning. The carnival revels have long ceased, but their memory lingers, a poignant echo which makes the prevailing austerities appear still more bleak.

There are compensations. One is the constant undercurrent of humour, which functions here as the brandy of the damned. Then there are the flawless minor characters: Freddie's cell-mate Billy, and a country policeman straight out of Flann O'Brien. But Banville's principal strength, as always, is his ability to capture the visual gist of things in original, precise, unforced language which for all its delights - one keeps wanting to quote - offers no consolation. On the contrary, these forcible reminders of how deeply we can be moved by a world that ignores our existence merely strengthens the sense of authentic, unassuageable anguish that makes Banville's work so disturbing - and so true.

(Photograph omitted)