BOOK REVIEW / Off to the pub for cold comfort: Ghosts - John Banville: Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99

JOHN BANVILLE'S new novel conjures a world of wispy insubstantiality in which mysterious figures come together, drift apart, converse, ruminate, get on each other's nerves, even go to the loo; everything, indeed, apart from actually spooking us.

Ghosts revisits the nebulous echoland of Eliot's The Hollow Men, a place where one might feel the presence of 'poor, pale wraiths pegged out to shiver in the wind of the world like so much insubstantial laundry, yearning towards us, the heedless ones, as we walk blithely through them'. Yet this is no good old-fashioned yarn about revenants - it's a chamber-piece for marionettes whose stop-start jerkiness dictates the novel's bumpy, disjointed rhythm.

Banville is also revisiting scenes from his last novel, The Book of Evidence, in which a man is convicted for the murder of a young woman. Now, released from prison but still haunted by his crime, the man has fled to an unnamed island where, in the company of a professor of art history and his assistant, he has embarked on a study of the French painter Vaublin, alternating this with occasional duties as a narrator. Their sequestered calm is interrupted when a strange party of visitors fetches up on the island after their boat has run aground, from which the book's action - if that isn't too vigorous a word - proceeds. Early intimations that this will be a rerun of The Tempest are soon banished - Ghosts is no parable of redemption. Very little happens in terms of narrative: Banville has entrusted the book's spell almost exclusively to the writing. But while he has certainly given the prose some beguiling contours - those sentences are measured out with slide-rule precision - a feeling of disconnectedness prevails.

The novel seeks to recreate the stillness and serenity of a painting, so we are asked to admire, for instance, 'an incongruously lovely, peach-coloured light such as might bathe a domestic interior by one of the North Italian masters'; this would be fine to listen to inside an art history lecture, but it tends to stall a novel's forward momentum. Even painterly prose needs something to feed on - Banville's tableaux vivants are bathed in aspic and so ostentatiously unreal that any interest in their vaporous presence, or rather absence, is drained off within 30 pages.

There is something perversely brave about a book so little concerned with the ordinary satisfactions of suspense. Ghosts reminded me not so much of a painting as a film, Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais' enigmatic variations on a story about a couple trying to decide whether they had met each other the year before. The detached performances, interminable tracking shots and cultivated ennui feel loaded with significance, though puzzling over how significant proves about as useful as unpicking a bed sock, only rather less dramatic. So it is with Ghosts, a book which seems lost inside its own cloistered self-regard. Just once the perfect glacial surface of the prose is broken, in a sequence which follows the narrator on his release from prison into the cold comfort of a pub (where the drinkers are, predictably, 'indeterminate types hunched over their pints in the furry grey gloom').

From this lonely bar he telephones his wife, and a halting conversation just about gets going when his money runs out: 'I gave her the number and hung up and waited. She did not call back. The absence of that ringing still tolls faintly in my memory like a distant mourning bell'. Here, at last, is a moment in which real flesh-and-blood frailty is exposed, a concentration of feeling that breaks clear of the novel's pinched frame. 'Details, details: pile them on', the narrator remarks dryly at one point. This book has detail in abundance - what it needs is a bit of drama.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence