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It’s a fine act of lit­er­ary ven­tril­o­quism and imag­i­na­tion

AT the end of Henry James’s 1881 novel The Por­trait of a Lady, we’re left un­sure as to what awaits his hero­ine Is­abel Os­mond (née Archer).

Hav­ing re­cently learnt of her hus­band Gilbert’s in­dis­cre­tions, and the be­trayal com­mit­ted by her one-time con­fi­dant Madame Merle (who, it’s shock­ingly re­vealed, is the mother of Gilbert’s daugh­ter Pansy, the girl he’s al­ways passed off as the le­git­i­mate off­spring of his first mar­riage), Is­abel de­fied Gilbert’s at­tempts to keep her at home in Rome, and fled in­stead to Eng­land and the deathbed of her beloved cousin Ralph Touchett.

On the last page of James’s book, we’re told that her in­de­ci­sion is sud­denly be­hind here: “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.” We know this path leads back to Rome, but whether it’s one of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion, a reck­on­ing, or that of re­venge, we’re left in the dark.

Un­til now, that is, for the Man Booker Prize-win­ning Ir­ish nov­el­ist John Banville’s new novel Mrs Os­mond picks up where James left off, with Is­abel “lashed by un­break­able bonds to Europe’s mast”. He plunges his read­ers back into a fin-de-siè­cle so­ci­ety of Amer­i­can heiresses, Euro­pean no­bil­ity and – as be­fits a story about Is­abel’s search for eman­ci­pa­tion: “What was free­dom,” Is­abel thinks, “other than the right to ex­er­cise one’s choices?” – the suf­frag­ists.

Open­ing in Lon­don, where Is­abel breaks her jour­ney from the Touchett’s coun­try es­tate, be­fore trav­el­ling on, via Paris and Geneva, to Italy, the nar­ra­tive might best be de­scribed as a se­ries of en­coun­ters be­tween her and var­i­ous char­ac­ters from the orig­i­nal: her plain-spo­ken Amer­i­can friend and jour­nal­ist Hen­ri­etta Stack­pole; the Machi­avel­lian Madame Merle; Mr Ed­ward Rosier, the young man who pur­sued Pansy’s hand in mar­riage but was in­glo­ri­ously sent pack­ing by Gilbert; Is­abel’s sis­ter-in-law, Count­ess Gemini, who spilled the beans about her brother’s in­deco­rous be­hav­iour; Mrs Touchett’s, Is­abel’s aunt and Ralph’s mother; and, of course, the archvil­lain him­self, Gilbert Os­mond.

Clev­erly, Banville has each of these meet­ings both pro­pel his nar­ra­tive for­ward and, look­ing back­wards, add lay­ers of in­tri­cacy to James’s work; each of Banville’s char­ac­ters sat­is­fy­ingly con­vinc­ing in their new guises. As such, I sus­pect it’s those read­ers al­ready fa­mil­iar with The Por­trait of a Lady who will en­joy Mrs Os­mond the most. It’s also worth men­tion­ing that Banville does an im­pres­sive job of mim­ick­ing the com­plex syn­tax that char­ac­terises James’s in­tri­cate prose; which here in turn takes a lit­tle get­ting used to be­fore one be­gins to see it el­e­gantly un­furl on the page. It’s not that those who haven’t read the orig­i­nal will find them­selves con­fused – Banville con­sci­en­tiously pro­vides all the de­tails first-time read­ers need to know to un­der­stand the story – rather they’d sim­ply be in­ad­e­quately pre­pared to ap­pre­ci­ate a cer­tain clearly in­te­gral ele­ment of the work Banville’s con­structed: a se­quel-cum-homage to that writ­ten by the Amer­i­can mas­ter. Although un­likely to have the broader ap­peal of Banville’s pre­vi­ous works, it’s a fine act of lit­er­ary ven­tril­o­quism and imag­i­na­tion.

MRS OS­MOND John Banville Loot.co.za (R289) Vik­ing

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