Mrs Osmond
by John Banville
Viking

A sequel to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady sounds like the jokey premise for an intellectual indie movie. When the author is John Banville, a writer whose ornate prose is a direct descendant of James’ studied meander­ing, one accepts it as a real propo­sition.

Banville’s Mrs Osmond is James’ titular Lady, née Isabel Archer. When we last met her, she was suspended between a loveless marriage to the atrocious Gilbert Osmond and the more optimistic, but unlike­ly, prospect of freedom. Banville inserts himself into Isabel’s proposed journey to Rome, where Osmond awaits her like a spider.

In a parody of a grand tour, Isabel sees European sights and even more people – including her nemesis d’amour, Madame Merle, and her BFF Henrietta Stackpole. A plot is secreted: a bag of cash that vanishes and appears like a parody of Chekhov’s gun. But you don’t read Banville or James for narrative. You crave the startling glory of the prose. Staines, Isabel’s maid, whose “jaw put you in mind of a primitive axe”. A red-headed man weeping so unstintingly that it was as if “his flaming hair were blushing for him to be so nakedly and shamefully on show”.

James would not be turning in his grave.