So here's to you, Mrs Gray

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 01:00

The words of the book move between the domestic and the aureate (or “aurate”, as a possibly mischievous spelling puts it). Discussion of the novel, however, is likely to dwell less on linguistic matters, or on the solution of mysteries, than on the presentation of Mrs Gray and her effect on her young chap, and on his awareness of that “purblind optician”, as he calls the spectacled Mr Gray.

This is very much what I like about the novel, those parts of it, in other words, that cut down on orotundity, that require other words. Mrs Gray is human, funny, fleshly. The “tender tending” that Dawn Devonport is in need of is supplied by Mrs Gray, who belies her name by being aureate or aurate. Banville has declared in an interview that he doesn’t understand women (or men, or himself), but he does seem to understand Celia Gray. Her chap is selfish, often surly, more respectful of the need for secrecy than Mrs Gray (whose disregard is a puzzle I’m unable to solve). The novel works towards an elucidation of the narrator’s misreadings of his vernal past and towards a final and suspenseful close that can’t be thought to be the end of a trilogy.

None of this is meant to make light of the gift for words and wordplay that helps to depict this not very Irish Ireland (as a British reader might suppose it), while the enlightening of the innocent by the woman at the waning of her youth is done proud in Banville’s novel. In one way or another the book has an aspect of social history: there can never have been a golden time when secrecy defeated the neighbours and nobody at all knew what was going on.

Karl Miller founded the London Review of Books, which he edited from 1979 to 1992, and is emeritus professor of English at University College London. His most recent book is Tretower to Clyro: Essays, published by Quercus

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