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Athena by John Banville
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We have all had experiences of entering a dream-like state. We wander and take in the scenery and the people, while we think about the day behind and the day ahead. The state seems vivid, but it also seems strangely “other.” I frequently have these while taking my early morning walks, and suddenly, I am on the last leg of the route home. This matched exactly the sensation I felt when reading John Banville’s 1995 novel, Athena.

Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for his novel The Sea. I collect this outstanding series of novels, and I first encountered Banville while working my way through the 46 winners of the prize first awarded in 1969.

Mr. Morrow seems a lost soul. He has a mysterious past involving the police, prison, and some artwork. His Aunt Corky is at death’s door – and has been for a few years. He reluctantly visits her from time to time. A shady character approaches him and asks him to examine some paintings and determine whether or not they are genuine. He also meets a beautiful young woman and begins a rather torrid affair. In fact he begins to obsess over this woman, and visits her at every opportunity. In the backdrop of this novel are a series of brutal murders in London, and some other mysterious characters that seem to follow Morrow.

Banville describes one visit to his aunt in hospital:

“The bed, the chair, the little table, the lino[leum] on the floor, how sad it all seemed suddenly, I don’t know why, I mean why at just that moment. I rose and walked to the window and looked down over the tilted lawn to the sea far below. A freshening wind was smacking the smoke-blue water, leaving great slow-moving prints, like the whorls of a burnisher’s rag on metal. Behind me Aunt Corky was talking of the summer coming on and how much she was looking forward to getting out and about. I had not the heart to remind her that it was September” (30-31).

The seven paintings Morrow is asked to authenticate are described and all seem to involve mythological creatures chasing women. Each chapter after the first, begins with a short essay on one of the paintings, and these essays gradually devolve into self-reflections by Morrow on the connection between the figures in the painting and his lover.

The more of Banville I read the more convinced I become that he is a great Irish writer and deserves a place at the table with Joyce, Becket, Shaw, and Wilde. Athena is rated R for a few explicit scenes and some mild violence, but it is an absorbing and enchanting thriller/love story. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/9/13 ( )
  rmckeown | Jul 21, 2013 |
I never got into the book. It was very difficult to read. Some say the story crystallizes and becomes clear in the final chapters, but it never did for me, or it was too late. ( )
  edwinbcn | Oct 3, 2011 |
This is a tough read if you lack a familiarity with classical mythology. Very dark and sometimes hilarious. ( )
  PrairieDogg | Jul 15, 2010 |
Athena by John Banville, the continuation and as far as I know the last book that features Freddie, our Humbert-like, somewhat reformed [or is he?] killer is delicious.
Banville's prose, again flows beautifully, making the most ordinary sort of shill game exceptional.

I highly recommend reading the trilogy in order so as to understand all the references and the reasons for Freddie's anguish. ( )
  Cateline | May 1, 2008 |
Banville is possibly the most gifted writer alive today. His evocations of place draw deeply on an intimate connection to weather, smells, and moods created by the shifting lights of day, and his narrators are victims, almost, of an overdeveloped, morbid awareness of their surroundings. Much of his writing struggles with the theme of identity and memory, and there is an ongoing counter narrative which undercuts the authority of the authorial voice. Sometimes this technique may come across as coy, but the general effect is to remind the reader of the provisional nature of storytelling - the arbitrary decisions of where to begin, what to leave out, and which perspective to adopt. In Shroud as well as Athena the narrator has changed his identity to hide a nefarious past. Identity becomes an invented concept on every level - making it up as we go along. Storytelling itself is the point of Banville’s writing, and the richness of his stylistic gift is unsurpassed by any other living writer, with the possible exception of DeLillo and David Mitchell.

I rate "Athena" as possibly Banville's best, right next to "Shroud". ( )
1 vote downstreamer | Jan 3, 2008 |
Showing 5 of 5
An ex-convict calling himself Morrow is asked to a house to give his opinion as to the authenticity of eight paintings of classical scenes belonging to a Mr Morden. In the course of one of his subsequent visits he meets a woman whom he only ever names as A, whose sexuality turns out to be complex and masochistic and to whom the narrative is addressed. However, on occasion “Morrow” seems to address, rather than A, the reader directly.

The novel mainly charts the progress of the couple’s strange relationship as well as the other complications in Morrow’s life; a distant cousin he calls Aunt Corky, a gang boss known as Mr Da, a police inspector named Hackett. All this is delivered in a series of long rambling sentences replete with sub-clauses and digressions and, for the first few chapters, very little dialogue. As well as this taste for prolixity the narrator also has an extensive vocabulary – a typical Banville trait. In the background there is a series of murders by a killer dubbed “The Vampire” which are referred to throughout the book but of which no more than that is made.

The nine (longish) chapters are interleaved with descriptions of what I presume are meant to be seven of the paintings. The individual artists concerned are given as Johann Livelb, L. van Hobelijn, Giovanni Belli, Job van Hellin, L.E.van Ohlbijn, J. van Hollbein and Jan Vibell. The eighth, mentioned in the fourth last page, is Birth of Athena by Jean Vaublin. A passing knowledge of Greek mythology might be a help in disentangling all of this. Curiously the (unattributed as far as I can see) cover picture of a man-like creature with strong upper arms and back but bearing a bull’s head - quite the most unprepossessing on my shelves I might say - does not seem to relate to any of these.

There is no sense throughout the book of linkages between the various strands until four pages from the end where some, if not all, is revealed and a measure of sympathy induced.

Athena is an extremely literary diversion. For those who want a bit of plot in their fiction it is somewhat lacking. As a portrait of a dysfunctional relationship and an exercise in unreliable narration it is, however, accomplished, but perhaps too over-elaborate and ultimately unengaging.
added by jackdeighton | editA Son Of The Rock, Jack Deighton (May 19, 2010)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679736859, Paperback)

From the internationally acclaimed author of The Book of Evidence and Ghosts comes a mesmerizing novel that is both a literary thriller and a love story as sumptuously perverse as Lolita. "A strange and dreamlike book . . . Banville has a breathtaking style."--Boston Globe.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:58 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

An artist with a violent past meets a woman who appears to emerge from his paintings, and their subsequent compulsive affair is reflected in additional paintings, until the woman suddenly disappears.

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