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
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links