Review: The Blue Guitar by John Banville

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through Edelweiss.

My Review:
The Blue GuitarOliver Orme, in the opening part of the novel, is fleeing his home, his career and his life.  He has had an affair with his friend’s wife and the torrid details of the tryst has been uncovered.  Oliver is not sure how his own wife, Gloria, will react and he isn’t even sure how his lover, Polly will react to his sudden departure.  All Oliver knows is that his life is spiraling out of control and his instinct is to flee.

The first part of the book describes Oliver’s relationship with his wife and his meetings with his lover.  Oliver has fled to his boyhood home so there are also many scenes in which Oliver reminisces about his family and his childhood.  He is the youngest boy in a large family and was particularly close to his mother.  When he is a child Oliver picks up a very bad habit of stealing minor things.  He relates in great detail his first theft which was a tube of paint in a local art store.  The rush that Oliver feels when he is engaging in his kleptomania is like a drug that compels him to keep stealing from his friends and family well into middle age.  The latest thing he has stolen is Polly and now that the affair is out in the open he wants nothing more than to flee the entire unpleasant situation.

In the second part of the book Polly shows up at Oliver’s boyhood home with her two-year-old daughter Pip.  Polly has decided to leave her husband and is on her way to her parents’ house and asks Oliver to accompany her.  This episode in the second part of the book is very bizarre as Polly’s eccentric family is described in great detail.  Oliver stays there overnight and manages to escape the house secretly without anyone noticing.  It is really unclear why Polly wanted Oliver to accompany her home in the first place.  It is, however, very evident that this passionate, nine month affair has run its course and Polly and Oliver no longer love each other.  Banville provides us with unique insight into an affair because this is one that never could have lasted.  It leaves the characters wondering whether having a brief relationship was really worth disturbing the lives of so many people.

The final part of the book deals with Oliver’s return home and his confrontation with his wife Gloria.  At this point Gloria has some disconcerting news of her own to share in return.  The third part of the book actually has two shocking twists to the tale that I never saw coming.  To be perfectly honest, Oliver was such an unlikeable and almost despicable character in the first part of the book that I almost gave up reading it.  However, I am very glad that I pressed on because the reasons for his emotional instability are revealed further into the book.  Oliver is a well-recognized and talented painter and because of the tragedy he has suffered in his life he has pretty much given up on his career.  Banville demonstrates, through the characters of Oliver and his wife that grief is a tricky emotion that we all deal with very differently.

Finally, I have to mention the beautiful prose and language that Banville uses to relate this story.  The entire book is told in the first person, through the eyes of Oliver himself.  There are a number of interesting rhetorical devices and plays on words and language that Banville uses throughout the writing.  I highly recommend this novel just to experience a taste of Banville’s clever and elegant prose.

About The Author:
J BanvilleBanville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children’s novel and a reminiscence of growing up in Wexford.

Educated at a Christian Brothers’ school and at St Peter’s College in Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect he did not attend university. Banville has described this as “A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free.” After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus which allowed him to travel at deeply-discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970.

After the Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at the Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left. Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1990. In 1984, he was elected to Aosdána, but resigned in 2001, so that some other artist might be allowed to receive the cnuas.

Banville also writes under the pen name Benjamin Black. His first novel under this pen name was Christine Falls, which was followed by The Silver Swan in 2007. Banville has two adult sons with his wife, the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing”. Banville has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.

Banville has a strong interest in vivisection and animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.


Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

9 responses to “Review: The Blue Guitar by John Banville

  1. Promise for beautiful prose and ‘such an unlikeable and almost despicable character BUT reasons for his emotional instability are revealed further into the book’ strangely appeal – it’s made me think of the TV series The Affair – Season 2 due next week here – which me & my daughter got really drawn into despite the despicable male lead… so maybe this would be an ideal read for me. Will certainly keep it in mind 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if Banville means to allude to the long poem by Wallace Stevens “The Man with the Blue Guitar” which in turn is thought to be a meditation on Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.” I’m not an authority on this rather cryptic poem, and I haven’t read Banville’s novel, but it might be interesting for you to see if the poem suggests anything to you in relation to this novel. I’m always intrigued by what might motivate an author’s choice of a title.


  3. My only experience of Banville – The Sea – was an underwhelming one. I like the sound of this so maybe I need to give him another go.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never read Banville but this intrigues me. Thanks for the well-thought-out review!

    Liked by 1 person

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