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.

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