Ghosts by John Banville

When I embarked on my venture of UK living I thought I should culturally assimilate. In addition to watching Gavin and Stacey a popular British comedy, I also bought John Banville’s Ghosts. Banville is an Irish author who earned my respect by being profiled in the sacred pages of The New Yorker. He’s an interesting case because he also publishes under another name, Benjamin Black. While Banville is the winner of the Manbooker prize for his novel The Sea (he actually beat out Sebastian Barry’s book A Long, Long Way, which was the first year read this year) Black’s work can be found in the genre fiction section of Barnes and Noble, Crime Fiction to be exact.  Genre fiction has always gotten a bad rap. There is a stigma attached to fictions with a prefix.  There is a distinction that leaves these bastard children of fiction out of the literature section of bookstores (oftentimes rightly so).  I was so impressed by Banville’s writing in Ghosts that I couldn’t imagine him writing something second-class.  I will have to investigate further, possibly even wandering into the Crime Fiction section (disguised of course) and purchasing a book by Benjamin Black. 

Ghosts is not a book for those who like things wrapped up nicely. It is not for people who need all the answers.  Ghosts is a twisting tangled web of ambiguous details which hit the reader with an uncommon sharpness.  Featuring characters such as a paroled murderer, a professor who hides his sordid past, and an eerie harlequin-like pervert, Felix, this novel could have turned out like one of my LEAST favorite books, John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I won’t allow myself to truly go off on this depraved rag; all I will say is the comical diversity of characters is similar in both novels.  Banville manages to create his own literary world where even these oddball characters are commonplace.  The tone of the novel puts the reader on edge, while the characters remain painfully bored. The storyline isn’t really my taste, however Banville’s writing more than makes up for it. When the plot becomes less important, or rather irrelevant to the reader because he or she is so mesmerized by the writing, we know we are looking at a master at work.

The setting of Ghosts is incredibly like that of St. Andrews. The novel takes place on an island with jagged cliffs where it is nearly always gray.  Welcome to the East Fife Coast! Though the weather here is rather dismal, it has an undeniable beauty.  It was amazing reading a book whose setting mirrored my own.  The threatening coast and gloomy sky made everything more colorful. The same happened in the book.  With such a bleak setting, characters were able to stand out in vivid color. 

Proto Cred: Charlotte Gorman

Already I have started adopting UK customs.  I tend to drink tea now (or chocomilk).  America is much more of a coffee place: mocha frappuccino, soy latte and the like.  My English roommate scoffs at me when I even mention coffee, as she ready’s the kettle.  Tea has a certain traditional aspect about it, and somehow the slightly musty leaves make me feel as though I am observing an ancient practice.  John Banville summed it up most accurately: “Tea tastes of other lives.” As I sip on tea, I can pretend I’m the Queen of England, J.K. Rowling, or Adele. 

There are certain aspects of Ghosts that certainly are visible on the other side of the pond.  The one I was most thrilled to discover was the writers of all nationalities enjoy lies:

“In my opinion the truth, so-called is a much overrated quantity. The trouble with it is that it is closed: when you tell the truth, that’s the end of it; lies on the other hand, ramify in all sorts of unexpected directions, complicating things, knotting them up in themselves, thickening the texture of life.  Lying makes a dull world more interesting. To lie is to create. Besides, fibs are much more fun, and liars, I am convinced, live longer.”

 All writers are generally prone to telling stories.  I know I certainly am.  I stretch the facts or sometimes even fabricate, all for the sake of a good story. 

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