The Blue Guitar by John Banville

Right from page one of John Banville’s new novel, you know you’re in for a ride with a tricky, slippery character. Oliver Orme describes himself as a thief and a painter, and then writes, ‘Ha! What I wrote down first, instead of painter, was painster. A slip of the pen, slip of the mind.’ And in that strange, jarring sentence, you realise that what he’s really alerting you to, right from the start, is the fact that he’s the classic Trickster character of literature. That you can’t trust him. About anything.

On the one hand he goes into a full and detailed account of all the things he’s experienced: his wife, his child, his family, the house he grew up in, his beautiful mother, the chip on his father’s shoulder. And then, just when you think you’re getting a handle on what sort of character he is, he changes tack and goes down a completely different path, skittering away from you like an undisciplined child. And laughing over his shoulder as he drags you along behind him.

Oliver Orme is both loathsome and likeable, in almost equal measure. Likeable because he’s so fantastically skilled with language, and so candid in the terrible things he’s done. Loathsome because he’s smart enough to have done things differently.

Oliver Orme – as well as being a painter/painster – is a thief. A ‘picker-up of unconsidered trifles’. One of the ‘unconsidered trifles’ he’s recently ‘picked up and put in his pocket’ is Polly, the wife of his best friend, Marcus. And that’s where we start the novel. With the affair being discovered and Oliver Orme running away, leaving Polly to bear the brunt of what’s to come next.

The Blue Guitar is a beautifully written book, perfect for those of you who like your characters complex and your humour dark.


Gabrielle Williams is a bookseller at Readings Malvern.