A painter who has quit painting finds his life unraveling as a soured love affair impels him to reassess his past and present and face a possibly bleak future.
Oliver Orme’s paintings have brought him fame, yet for reasons he tries to explain throughout this painful, artful book, his muse has left him— “one day I woke up and the world was lost to me.” He also can’t fully explain his lifelong compulsion to steal small things, usually from people he knows. As he approaches age 50, he's living in the town where he grew up and pursuing an affair—with a woman he “pinched from her husband”—in the art studio he still has above his late father’s former print shop. The early death of his only child casts a shadow over his marriage that isn’t lightened by his infidelity. Orme, a largely unlikable and unreliable narrator, says he's writing in a “thick school jotter” about “my loves, my losses, my paltry sins.” At times he makes light of or tries to gloss over his flaws, and he laughs when he mistakenly writes “painster” instead of “painter.” But this self-examination, an effort to “learn over again all I had thought I knew but didn’t,” is far from painless, offering familiar Banville (Ancient Light, 2012, etc.) themes of memory and regret. Still, there is constant humor, of the sly variety for which the author is well-known, and something more: a section where Oliver visits the tatty estate of his lover’s eccentric family has elements of Stella Gibbons and P.G. Wodehouse. Then there’s the sheer pleasure of the writing. Banville delights in descriptions of people and nature, and here he has the added excuse of writing through a painter’s gifted eye.
The artist Orme is not a pleasant creation to spend several hours with, but in the hands of this gifted Irish writer, even a potbellied, melancholic petty thief and Lothario offers countless delights.