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Enigmatic novel is stranger than fiction


"Ghosts," John Banville's latest novel, is told by two narrators. But it is is actually three stories in one.

Mr. Banville packs each of those stories with puns, anagrams, allusions and verbal pyrotechnics. He also puts in theological, philosophical, mythological, historical, artistic and literary references.

One of the stories refers back to Mr. Banville's previous novel, "The Book of Evidence." A second story is what the first story implies, allegorically. A third story is a commentary on the story that results when the first and second are combined.

This third story also attempts to unravel some of the problems presented in this complex novel, which is more like a puzzle than fiction. The point of this puzzle is the interconnectedness of all things living and dead.

John Banville, literary editor of the Irish Times, has received several of England's most important awards for literature. Considered one of Ireland's leading writers, he tells a difficult-to-read story that probably won't make the best-seller list but will assume a place in anthologies of late 20th-century literature.

Mr. Banville's thoughts about writing show the sensibility that goes into his novels: "Say you describe something very, very well. You really catch it," he has said. "The thing has a kind of surprised sense. A chair is standing there looking at you saying, 'Goodness, I never realized that about myself.' Or a person. You get them so vividly that they exist with an intensity which they didn't have in real life."

In "Ghosts," everything exists with such intensity. Even the language seems intense. In fact, the language is almost too intense --playing on itself while playing on works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Beckett. At times, the writing is so bright that the brightness distracts.

The book begins as seven survivors from a shipwreck struggle up the beach of a island -- a place where "the dead have not died." Mr. Banville suggests comparisons between this island and Prospero's island in "The Tempest," and Circe's island in "The Odyssey." He also suggest comparisons between this island and Heaven, and this island and Hell.

The setting of the story, then, is either an island ruled by a good magician or by an evil enchantress. It's either "The Golden World," a painting by Vaublin. Or it's the island of the damned. If that isn't confusing enough, everything in this novel is at least two-sided, including the lives of these characters who, as the title implies, may also be dead.

The characters are doubles of each other. Felix, one of the survivors, is the dark twin of the narrator who, himself, is a double -- of Professor Kreutznaer, an art historian who inhabits the house on the island. Felix is also a character in an earlier book by Mr. Banville, where he acts as an evil twin. Another survivor of the shipwreck, Flora, is also a double; the narrator believes that Flora is the double of a subject in a painting that he stole.

Whether the narrator stole the painting, why he stole it, and the murder he may have committed are the subjects of Mr. Banville's The Book of Evidence." In the present book, the narrator has been released from prison to be sent to this island. He describes it as a place "with cliffs on one side and a rocky foreshore on the other. The seas round about are treacherous, running with hidden currents. . . "

The island also makes "a strange, soft, bellowing sound." The sound, depending on who describes it, is either a siren voice or an old blowhole that the tide pushes air through. At least two narrators tell the story. One is the former prisoner; his view is limited to his own experience. The other narrator is an Ariel-like character. His view is omniscient. The narrative voices tend to blend into each other, making it hard to know who is speaking and when.

The book is divided into four sections. The first describes the survivors coming onto the island and what they find. This section, which is allegorical, establishes the surreal atmosphere of the story. Reading it, you feel as if you're entering someone's dream.

The second section is more literal; it flashes back to earlier incidents, taking the narrator to prison and later to the island. The third section attempts to give a perspective. The fourth has the survivors planning to leave the island.

Their doubles, however, will remain. The island is a place where people meet their doubles. It is a place where the divergent parts of the universe converge and tell their stories with as many voices as they need. Those voices are the point of Mr. Banville's extraordinary novel.

(Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.)


Title: "Ghosts"

Author: John Banville

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 245 pages, $21

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