The Blue Guitar – Booker prize winner John Banville’s latest novel – is a quiet, thoughtful novel narrated by a strange and reclusive man. It is a first-person character study that encapsulates the reader inside a fascinating mind.
Oliver Orme is a middle-aged painter and kleptomaniac, though the term may be harsh for his romantic and greedless form of thieving. Like in his painting, Oliver simply likes to take what he sees and bring it into his world—to give it a new life. His small collection of treasures began at just six years old with an instinctive and unplanned swipe at an alluring tube of white paint. Though his painting was fairly popular in the past, his inspiration has run dry. He moved back to his hometown with his wife, and in his creative lapse began an affair with a married woman—a much younger woman named Polly. However, when their relationship is discovered, Oliver retreats into his childhood home and hides himself from the world. It is from here he first writes his story, his confessions, and everything that seems to cross his mind.
The plot of The Blue Guitar is leisurely and for the most part inconsequential. Oliver moves around the town, remembers the past, gets yelled at, goes on a few walks, and generally does not do much besides think (and, possibly, write the novel we are reading). This allows for two hundred pages of deep immersion in his wandering brain. The narrative is short of stream-of-consciousness—while writing more or less what he thinks as it comes to him, Oliver frequently cuts himself off, as if wanting to hide something or redirect the conversation, and often addresses his readers as if they have been actively talking back to him throughout the novel. He cuts himself off if he notices he is beginning to sound cliché, as if embarrassed by the reader’s opinion. Oliver is constantly aware of the story being told and the people reading it, which creates a self-consciousness that reveals more about the character than if he had been unabashedly revealing all.
The immersive narrative leads to questions of the reliability of the narrator. The reader spends the novel entirely inside Oliver’s head and is never given another perspective except for the short bursts of dialogue from other characters. However, these bursts are enough to trigger questions about what he’s led us to believe: is there an art to his thievery, or is he just glorifying his bad habit? Did he truly have a creative breakdown in painting, or is he just lazy? Is he an interesting person at all, or does he just a huge megalomaniac?
Banville’s The Blue Guitar is a poetic and and captivating read, keeping you stuck inside Oliver Orme’s brain long after the last page.