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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


John Banville

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To purchase Shroud

Title: Shroud
Author: John Banville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 257 pages
Availability: Shroud - US
Shroud - UK
Shroud - Canada
Impostures - France
Caliban - Deutschland
L'invenzione del passato - Italia
Imposturas - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive ethereal story-telling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 12/10/2002 Lisa Allardice
The Economist . 2/11/2002 .
The Guardian . 5/10/2002 Alex Clark
London Rev. of Books . 2/1/2003 Benjamin Markovits
The LA Times . 8/6/2003 Jack Miles
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 27/9/2004 David Thomas
New Statesman . 18/11/2002 Hephzibah Anderson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/3/2003 Bruce Bawer
The Observer . 13/10/2002 Adam Mars-Jones
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . (II/2003) Irving Malin
Salon . 20/2/2003 Laura Miller
The Spectator . 28/9/2002 Michael Glover
Sunday Telegraph . 29/9/2002 David Robson
Sydney Morning Herald B- 16/11/2002 Andrew Riemer
The Times . 16/10/2002 .
TLS . 20/9/2002 John Kenny
The Village Voice . 29/4/2003 Jessica Winter
The Washington Post . 9/3/2003 Jonathan Dee

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with many varied opinions ranging from those completely in awe to those who had many issues with the text

  From the Reviews:
  • "You read Banville, in the end, less for the narrative than for his love of language. An indulgent stylist, he has a gift for enigmatic clarity as he seeks to recreate the external world through the eyes of a narcissistic narrator. But for all its fine sentences, Shroud, like so much of Banville's work, is essentially an exquisite exercise in solipsism." - Lisa Allardice, Daily Telegraph

  • "As a tale, it is unconvincing. (...) Even so, the novel works its wonders." - The Economist

  • "Shroud begins to seem like a dense and impenetrable web of such allusions, and to render the reader a paranoid detective. But to see this novel merely as an esoteric argument with a theorist whose most significant work centred on his understanding of rhetoric and allegory would be to diminish its immense, self-supporting power." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "Summarising Banville is a bit like taking a recipe from a restaurant cookbook and trying it at home -- it never turns out quite right. We can't get hold of the ingredients or the high-powered cooker, and the results seem alternately bland and bizarre. Banville writes with such assured subtlety, however, that he forces us to ask his questions." - Benjamin Markovits, London Review of Books

  • "In Axel Vander, Banville has created an intellectually and physically larger-than-life character and made us hope that the messy spectacle of his self-destruction will be interrupted. Even readers less mesmerized by the voice than I am will be drawn into the relationship that develops between Vander and Cleave -- bold fabricator and timid commentator, rogue male and suffering female, mighty host and puny parasite." - Jack Miles, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Lies are "life’s almost-anagram", and this is a correspondingly rich, riddling, and ultimately infuriating text." - Hephzibah Anderson, New Statesman

  • "In Shroud, Banville's protagonist is loathsome, his supporting cast uniformly unattractive; yet he is so successful at capturiing these people's terrible, desperate (and, in Vander's case, morally repugnant) humanity that we're fascinated by them nonetheless" - Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "John Banville's literary powers are so commanding that it feels almost wilful to withhold full assent from Shroud, a book almost entirely composed of bursts of amazing prose. But there is wilfulness on Banville's part, too, in a couple of passages at the midpoint of the book that take the narrative clean off its hinges. After that, it takes extra effort from both writer and reader to make the spell work again, starting from scratch." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Banville could have written a comedy of errors, but he knows that somehow reality exists, if only in the body’s decay. After all the metaphors, the changes of narration, Vander (wander, wonder ?) knows that the dead have their voice." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Fortunately, this book is redeemed by the cunning of its plotting. (...) The portrait of Axel Vander is a brilliant one. He is bullish and aggressive, burdened by an excess of self-consciousness, a man who can never rid himself of the terrible underpull of the past. And Cass Cleave herself is a fragile moth drawn to his light, too fragile, haunted and fractured to survive." - Michael Glover, The Spectator

  • "(T)he execution is clumsy, terribly clumsy. Banville delays producing the rabbit much longer than the trick requires, then produces a series of further rabbits, none of them worthy of the flourish with which he unveils them. Half the natural tension in the narrative is dissipated. It is a shame the narrative has not been better crafted, because, in its bare bones, it is a fascinating storyline, with some rich human themes." - David Robson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "John Banville's eagerly awaited new novel is something of a curate's egg, marvellous in parts, but curiously soulless, even perfunctory, elsewhere. (...) And finally, Shroud struck me as excessively self-regarding and allusive." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "This is a superb, magnetic piece of characterisation, and it makes Shroud a far more powerful novel than Eclipse." - The Times

  • "Shroud may seem like more of the same from Banville. Much of the ground is thematically and figuratively familiar: a tired but ferociously articulate narrator; a fascination with inauthenticity and masks; dipsomania and clairvoyant drunkenness; red-haired Doppelganger-like phantasms; commedia dell'arte atmosphere and stage metaphors. Banville has, however, successfully combined these elements in a renewed focus on the organically related themes of death, destruction and salvation." - John Kenny, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Though psychologically immersive and bracingly unsentimental, Shroud pulls Banville back to near-empty haunts; perhaps this revisitation should be his last." - Jessica Winter, The Village Voice

  • "Shroud leaves one not so much moved as significantly impressed." - Jonathan Dee, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       John Banville's Shroud isn't a sequel to his earlier Eclipse (see our review), but they are complementary texts. There are only two truly central figures in Shroud. One, Axel Vander, narrates much of the book. The other is Catherine "Cass" Cleave -- daughter of the old man at the centre of Eclipse, Alexander Cleave. (Note that despite this overlap the two books can stand completely on their own, and familiarity with one is not necessary for enjoyment of the other.)
       Again Banville offers an old-man's tale. True to the titles, Alexander Cleave's was an eclipsed life and Vander's is a shrouded one, with the truth hidden and obscured. An elderly academic, his wife, Magda, recently died (a matter also not as simple as it might, at first, sound, and one that still, quite literally, haunts him). Vander has a chance for both escape and for facing his biggest fears when he accepts a convenient invitation to speak on Nietzsche in Turin, inviting (or challenging) Cass to meet him there -- in this city of the shroud (which does figure in the story too), and the place where Nietzsche went mad.
       Vander has a secret. In a sense his whole life has been a lie. In a sense his lying was what kept him going, a raison d'être in and of itself. Early on he admits:

All my life I have lied. I lied to escape, I lied to be loved, I lied for placement and power; I lied to lie. It was a way of living; lies are life's almost-anagram.
       And near the end he wonders about his obsession with falsehoods:
I lied about everything, even when there was no need, even when the plain truth would have been more effective in maintaining the pretence.
       His life is shaken up not only by his wife's death but because it possibly threatens to unravel, as Cass apparently knows his secret. The two meet -- and become an unlikely couple. Cass is a disturbed young woman, slightly (and occasionally more so) unhinged (and, in fact, truly ill), and dealing with some father-daughter issues. And Vander actually falls in love.
       The secret of Vander's fake life lies in his Antwerp youth, in the time before and then during the German occupation of Holland during World War II. It is revealed mid-way through the book, with Vander himself telling his tale. It turns out his guilt at living the lie isn't for quite the reasons one might expect, and the story has at least two fairly clever twists to it regarding that. (The book is, in some ways, a twist on the Paul de Man story (and Louis Althusser's too, as Banville acknowledges in his acknowledgements) -- but Banville makes it very much his own.)
       Vander is "not mad, really, only very, very old" in the novel. He drinks too much and, for a former professor of literature, is in many ways the antithesis of a Romantic. No lovely Italian scenes for him:
No: give me an anonymous patch of ground, with asphalt, and an oily bonfire smouldering, and vague factories in the distance, some rank, exhausted non-place where I can feel safe, where I can feel at home, if I am ever to feel at home, anywhere.
       A critic once described his: "assertive elusiveness", and it's that approach and attitude that seems to have marked both his professional and personal life (and, naturally, much of this tale he tells).
       Cass -- poor disturbed Cass, his very own Cassandra -- offers an unlikely and odd anchor, but the two do settle down together for a time. Calamity, however, is never far, and the end tragic.
       Vander tells most of the story, and occasionally he tells it in something of a fog. He is old, he drinks too much, he's not always sure of what happens. He's also afraid, of the change that might come were he to be exposed and later because of his concern and feelings for Cass. He's also a practiced liar -- indeed, someone who arguably can't do otherwise than lie. And so one can't be certain of where the truth lies here. (Appropriately, then, Vander himself is left wondering at the end too.)
       Banville creates an impressive fiction. There's a lot more to the story, as Vander describes his life with Magda, and as other characters also figure in the present-day events. The novel moves like a fog, advancing and shifting as one passes through it, with clear spots and others where one is completely disoriented. (There is, however, a bit too much of the personal-fog used as an excuse in the text: madness and drunkenness seem frequently to be fairly feeble excuses for the atmosphere of vagueness Banville builds up.)
       It is a well-imagined and told tale, and certainly anything but predictable. It is the pervasive uncertainty which, because it is so true to life, makes it compelling, and makes it seem real. However, the shifting perspectives (Vander narrates most but not all the book) are a bit bothersome, and the limited glimpses into much of Vander's life (or Cass', for that matter) disappoint: this is a book which easily could have been fuller.
       An impressive if not entirely satisfactory effort, but certainly worthwhile.

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Shroud: Reviews: John Banville: Other books by John Banville under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish author John Banville was born in 1945. He has written a number of highly acclaimed novels.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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