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John Banville: Birchwood

The big house novel is a staple of Irish literature. It provides a useful framework for showing the differences between the native Irish population and the rich, often English or, if Irish, non-Irish-speaking Protestants. It is also useful, of course, to portray a group of people isolated from the real world. In this novel, Banville has taken this theme and made a wonderful, Irish-Gothic novel about decay and ruin.

The novel is narrated by the religiously named Gabriel Godkin, scion of both the Godkin and Lawless family. The Lawless family had originally owned the big house, Birchwood. But a few generations back, the Godkins had taken over. The house is now owned by Joseph Godkin but he is married to Beatrice Lawless. Gabriel is their son. However, the house is effectively under the control of the matriarch, Granny Godkin, who rules with a rod of iron. Her husband – younger than her – is still alive but he tends to hide away. There are also a housekeeper – Josie – and a gardener – Nockter. He will later run off and join the rebels. The family is later joined by Joseph’s sister, Martha, and her son, Michael. It seems that she left when she gave birth to an illegitimate son but she now returns with the son.

Banville paints a gloomily Gothic picture of Birchwood. The house is falling apart. A ceiling collapses; a floor falls in. There is dry rot and mould everywhere. The family finances are in disarray. The local Irish population, smelling collapse, take advantage, particularly by poaching. There is clearly some grim family secret, over and beyond who will inherit, but this is kept hidden. The grandparents both die. Grandpa is the first to go, whacked over the head with a pheasant by a fleeing poacher while grandma is apparently a victim of spontaneous combustion. Beatrice is slowly going mad, while Joseph is getting more and more depressed. Gabriel and Michael are different and tend to keep away from one another, Gabriel being more interested in Rosie, a local girl. However, Gabriel is aware that things are not right. He catches pneumonia and, while in his delirium, works out that he has a sister, who has been hidden from him. This is confirmed by Michael. He then runs away to find her and joins a travelling circus.

The circus adventure is badly timed. The country is going to hell, with the potato blight, aggressive English soldiers and Molly Maguires, the Irish rebels, fighting back. Gabriel and his colleagues are often hungry, brutalised by the soldiers and police and often forbidden to set up in the towns they travel to. Eventually, they come back to Birchwood where Banville gives us a splendid dance of the dead and Gabriel again runs away. He travels around before inadvertently stumbling again onto both Birchwood and the circus. Meanwhile, the Lawless family has regained Birchwood, Beatrice has been sent to a lunatic asylum and chaos reigns everywhere. A glorious finale, with the Molly Maguires, the Lawless family and the circus slugging it out, does at least resolve the family connections but leaves Gabriel with the family curse. Banville has written a thoroughly Gothic novel where chaos and death thrive, leaving little, if any, hope but it makes for good reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1973 by Secker & Warburg