Such is Banville’s gift for characterisation that we feel we’ve come to know not just Isabel but her adversaries, too
emancipation — my suffrage, if you like”, and the reader spends the rest of the novel wondering quite how she’s going to accomplish that freedom.
In the meantime, both Isabel and the reader learn more of the lies and treachery perpetrated by Gilbert Osmond and Serena Merle, so that when she finally confronts them — firstly her husband in Florence and then both of them in Rome — the comeuppance she delivers is all the more exhilarating.
And such is Banville’s gift for characterisation that we feel we’ve come to know not just Isabel but her adversaries, too, though other characters are also vividly imagined: notably Isabel’s forthright journalist friend Henrietta Stackpole; Osmond’s unlikeable sister, the haughty countess Amy, whose confiding to Isabel of her brother’s misdeeds has occasioned the whole crisis; and Osmond’s brutalised 20-year-old daughter Pansy, the true circumstances of whose birth are only revealed to Isabel late in the book.
Isabel herself, though, proves to be ultimately unknowable and the very ending, like that of the James original, is ambiguous, if not here in terms of plot resolution then in terms of who exactly Isabel really is and quite what destiny she wishes to pursue.
Perhaps that’s Banville’s final homage to the master, about whom he has previously said: “People say I’ve been influenced by Beckett or Nabokov, but it’s always been Henry James”.
He has certainly done him proud in this enthralling book.