#234 The Shroud

Again, this is a book that I began a while ago and had to come back to. I took The Shroud on holiday and despite the plane journeys only managed the first 11 pages, after which I was so nonplussed I waited two months before returning to it. My first impressions of the novel were slightly disheartening, because I know there’s at least one other John Banville novel on the list.
However, as with all these books I start, I persevered and am glad I did, although I’m not sure how much I would say I enjoyed this book. As with Great Apes and Time’s Arrow, reading The Shroud (or even thinking about reading it) made me feel slightly nauseous, which ultimately didn’t help me to get through it any quicker because I’ve had quite a few train meals recently (and have had to wait a few minutes after having finished eating to being to think about resuming reading). Despite this, once I got into it (as long as I wasn’t hindered by hunger) I got through it very quickly: it was easy to read and I enjoyed the way it was written.
I think most of the displeasure that I associate with this book comes from the main character who from the beginning presents himself as a grizzled, irritable, obnoxious old man. I’m not sure whether it was because I took the book to Berlin or because I rented Time’s Arrow at the same time but I had the impression that this book was going to be WWII related although I didn’t know where from – I skimmed the few pages I had read again without success – so I had to wait a good 200 pages to have this confirmed. Alex Vander is an author and professor who stole his name from a former friend after escaping destruction by the Nazis by chance (to be exact, by a helpful anonymous note). He believes himself to be the only one to know his true identity, but as the novel begins he has just received a letter from another claiming to know the truth; when he meets his potential blackmailer he finds an intelligent but slightly deranged young woman with whom he strikes up a disturbing sexual and (questionably) romantic relationship. This is interlaced with recollections of his wife of 40+ years, who Vander eventually (mercy) killed when she was in the later stages of dementia, and the retelling of his own history: his escape from Belgium to America and adoption of the name Alex Vander. It was a strange story, but then again considering the subject matter that was to be expected – I think perhaps what struck me as immediately peculiar was that Vander was no Humbert Humbert – nasty but (disgustingly) charming – instead my first impression of him as a horrible character continued throughout. That said he was still an engaging character and I was keen to find out about his history and what would eventually come of the strange situation in which we find him.

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