Engaging, elegant tale of Lady and vengeance


Nearly a century and a half after Henry James' story of an American heiress' quest for freedom comes a compelling sequel from John Banville (above).

His latest novel Mrs Osmond turns the page on the ambiguous ending of James' Portrait Of A Lady (1881) and offers some intriguing answers to what might later befall the novel's heroine.

In The Portrait Of A Lady, young Isabel Archer travels to London and inherits a fortune from her uncle. Her money both liberates and ensnares her. She becomes a victim of Machiavellian scheming and ends up married to the narcissistic Gilbert Osmond.

In Banville's evocative sequel, Isabel flees Rome and her husband after she learns of his shocking dealings with their friend Serena Merle.

Freeing herself from Osmond's powerful grasp, she starts to exact revenge on the two co-conspirators who have thwarted her happiness.

Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea in 2005, is a master stylist. Mrs Osmond is an elegant piece of work from start to finish.

Take, for instance, the poignant description of Osmond's pliant daughter: "Her father, as everyone knew, had over the years ground the child steadily in the mortar of his will until her spirit, what there had been of it to start with, had been reduced to the consistency of a smooth, bland paste."



    By John Banville

    Penguin Books/ Paperback/ 376 pages/$27.10/ Books Kinokuniya

    3.5 stars

Banville's characters are convincing versions of the original cast and he does a good job of polishing the themes and motifs he has inherited. But a bolder, more original artistic vision would have been welcome.

Its reliance on the original makes it feel like the literary equivalent of an ivy growing on a trellis that has been hauled out of a 19th-century attic.

Written in an old-fashioned style to match the prose of James' masterpiece, Mrs Osmond at times seems like a glossy remake with some instances of overwrought dialogue.

"So he has got himself in with the Jews," Osmond says, speaking of his daughter's old suitor. "I was not aware of them being native to anywhere, save some steamy warren beneath an escarpment in Palestine."

The final pages feature a series of twists and mini-revelations. Some of these - such as the abrupt appearance of British journalist Myles Devenish - feel more like hasty embellishments rather than parts of a carefully constructed denouement.

Mrs Osmond may not be Banville's best work, but there is no denying that it is engaging, nuanced and, at times, thought-provoking.

What it lacks in originality, it mostly makes up for with lucid yet seamless writing. It is, after all - to borrow T.S. Eliot's praise of James which sounds just as much like a backhanded jibe - "so fine that no idea could violate it".

If you like this, read: The Portrait Of A Lady (Collectors Library, $19.67, Books Kinokuniya), Henry James' masterpiece about American heiress Isabel Archer and her pursuit of freedom and independence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'Engaging, elegant tale of Lady and vengeance'. Print Edition | Subscribe