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Angling for Absolution

Axel Vander has a problem: Someone has stolen his identity. Someone has filched his name, his history, his ideas, his life. Fortunately for Vander, he knows who the culprit is. Unfortunately for Vander, he himself is the thief.

Or is he?

Welcome to John Banville's protean fictive universe, where no one is what he or she seems, unless they're exactly what they seem — in which case, they probably aren't.

Part mystery, part epistemological jigsaw puzzle, part black comedy, Banville's 13th novel is similar in theme and tone to several of his previous books, especially The Book of Evidence and his masterwork (so far), 1998's The Untouchable. Both featured privileged, narcissistic narrators chronicling, in often chilling detail, the decisions and actions that led them to messy, disgraceful ends. The voice one hears in Shroud is, once again, that of an erudite, torturedly self-reflective man gamely confessing past sins, angling for absolution while archly avoiding anything that smacks of apology or contrition.

For Vander, the unlied-about life is hardly worth living. "All my life I have lied. I lied to escape, I lied to be loved; I lied to lie. It was a way of living." Not an attitude one might wish in a friend or lover, but as conceived by an artist of Banville's gifts, this inability to be straight with anyone, including himself, lends Vander a complexity at once all too human, and beyond good and evil. We might not like or admire or respect Axel Vander, but once we've met him, we won't soon forget him.

Shroud opens with the panicked, Belgian-born Vander preparing to fly to Europe from the California academic idyll (a thinly disguised Berkeley) where he has, for decades, hidden uneasily from his past. Stunned to learn that a young Irishwoman he's never met has uncovered information that could raze his comfortable life, the recently widowed Vander has agreed to meet his nemesis in Turin, where he is scheduled to speak at an academic conference, to find out what she knows — Turin, home to the famous, and famously fake, shroud of Christ. (The young woman is, in fact, Cass Cleave, the haunted, unstable daughter of the narrator from Banville's previous book, Eclipse.)

From the beginning, Vander's narrative employs the consciously vague language of the inveterate deceiver, a man slowly learning to speak honestly, to himself and to us, about the raveled thread that binds the exploits of his youth to the fear and looming scandal of his dotage.

"It was as if I had been informed," he says of Cass Cleave's letter from Antwerp, "that a long-dead sibling, hardly remembered and never loved, was not dead after all, but trite and vigorously alive... and about to pay an impossible visit."

A pretty image — but it is only later, much later, after Vander and the young woman meet in Turin and become (rather improbably) lovers, that the reader gleans the identity of that mysterious, long-dead sibling. And even then, the identity of the "sibling" is more a suggestion, a ghostly memory, than a physical presence. Here, as in so many of Banville's books, ghosts and spirits are not merely metaphors. Instead, they're constant companions to the author's close-to-unhinged characters, often more substantive, more authentic, than the flawed, conniving humans they besiege.

As Cleave and Vander play out their ill-fated intrigue — three months of emotional wariness, pilgrimages to cemeteries, and an almost sensual indulgence in their own story's clear, onrushing doom — the novel's voice alternates between Vander's learned, egocentric dissembling (the bulk of the book is in his voice) and a third-person chronicle of Cleave's futile struggle to flee her demons, the inner voices that have pursued and plagued her for most of her life. But the real appeal and triumph of Shroud lie not in the story itself, not in the mystery of Vander's identity and Cleave's fate, but in the author's ability to examine the mysteries from so many different angles, through so many different eyes. Though Banville's characters aren't exactly appealing, to say the least, his language is delicate without preciousness, dense and challenging without veering into opacity. And we're treated, on nearly every page, to the pleasure of a formidable writer's fresh take on age-old themes: the nature of self and the limits of love.

SHROUD | By JOHN BANVILLE | Knopf | 257 pages $25 hardcover


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