Review: Birchwood

John Banville (1973)

This book was a shot in the dark, a completely random pull from the library shelf. Never underestimate the power of cover art. That, combined with the striking single-word title, an Irish setting, and a brief description on the back that made the story sound worthy of Masterpiece Theatre, piqued my interest. In turn, my spontaneous choice rewarded me with a new author to explore further.

About two pages into Birchwood, Banville’s stylized prose hit me like a brick wall and I thought I’d never be able to get through the entire book, no matter how slim the volume. I kept with it and it didn’t take long before I was flowing with the rhythm and thoroughly immersed in the story.

I use the word ‘story’ loosely since there isn’t much plot. Birchwood is one man’s recollection of his childhood growing up on a slowly decaying Irish estate surrounded by the eccentric, the insane, and the dark secrets of his family. Gothic stuff to say the least. Birchwood seeps with a nearly tangible sense of place. At the same time, my only criticism of the story would be my confusion about the time period in which it’s set. (References to the great famine and Molly Maguires later in the book place it much earlier than I’d originally thought, though the story itself feels quite contemporary.) No matter, I was intrigued throughout and afterward wished I’d read it for book club as there’s plenty of material to generate interesting discussion. Banville is definitely on my list to read deeper into his bibliography.

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