(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Athena is the third in a loose trilogy by John Banville which began with The Book of Evidence (1989) and which follows the Mr. Morrow of Athena in his edgy wanderings through the realm of art and the criminal underworld. As Morrow admits, “There is something in me that cleaves to the ramshackle and the shady, a crack somewhere in my make-up that likes to fill itself up with dirt. I tell myself this vulgar predilection is to be found in all true connoisseurs of culture but I am not convinced.” Morrow is a man of a contradictory sensibility—one aspect yearning to rub shoulders with gothic monsters, the other retreating into a pristine world of artistic perfection and sublimity. A measure of Banville’s success is his ability to render acutely each of these contradictory desires and the realms of experience they suggest.

The novel begins with the narrator paying homage to his love, who has vanished, and gradually describes his visit to a rotting, ominous house on a bleak avenue that he names Rue Street. He is met by an oddly feral character named Francie, who escorts Morrow through a maze of stairs and rooms until they meet the sinister Morden, who proposes that Morrow evaluate and catalog eight Flemish paintings in Morden’s possession. The narrative then oscillates between chapters devoted to the narrative and brief interchapters that describe and analyze seven of the eight paintings.

On a second trip through the neighborhood, Morrow follows a striking woman who invites him into her room in the house on Rue Street, and the two begin a steamy romance that continues throughout the novel. Morrow then travels each day between his residence and the Rue Street address, examining the paintings and becoming more involved with the woman he identifies only as A. One day Morden takes the narrator on a drive to meet a young tough named Popeye and an older man referred to as the Da. Morrow learns that the paintings have been stolen and that the Da is a powerful criminal and the major force behind the theft and the cataloging of the paintings.

As Morrow becomes more enamored of A., he realizes that she has become a diffident partner whose interest can be piqued only by masochism, which Morrow reluctantly adopts. At the same time Morrow’s elderly cousin, Aunt Corky, grows increasingly difficult as her health declines, and he removes her from a rest home to live with him. Eventually she falls, breaks her hip, and dies, leaving her estate to him, and Detective Hackett, a police inspector from Morrow’s past, arrives and asks about the stolen paintings.

Although the novel is oblique in its references, it is clear that Morrow has spent time in jail and that he was once involved in an art theft that resulted in the death of a maid. Readers familiar with Banville’s The Book of Evidence and Ghosts (1993) will quickly recognize Morrow as the Freddie Montgomery who stole a painting and killed a woman who stumbled upon his crime. Banville admitted in a 1993 interview that the characters are the same, though “in the present book [Athena], if I can do it, he will have no name, no characteristics—he’ll just be a voice.”

Morrow soon confesses to Hackett that the paintings are hidden on Rue Street, and after an investigation it is discovered that all but one of them are forgeries. Almost overnight the Da, Morden, and A. disappear, and Detective Hackett informs Morrow that Morden and A. are the Da’s children. Morrow realizes that the romance was very likely an arrangement to involve him in the Da’s criminal machinations. Despondent, Morrow spends his time searching vainly for A. and reviewing his recent past.

As the culmination of a trilogy, Athena not only amplifies on an extended plot but also develops a group of themes crucial to each of these works. One of the most crucial of these is the theme of identity, a concern to which Morrow returns repeatedly. In the first chapter the narrator informs the audience that he has chosen the name Morrow “for its faintly hopeful hint of futurity” after rejecting various other possibilities that seem too obvious or heavy-handed. He repeatedly admits that he is self-obsessed and that his “ultimate self . . . would, . . . must, remain forever hidden.”

Morrow often describes scenes involving himself from a distinctly divided perspective. He engages in actions while simultaneously watching himself act, and in his relationship with A. this dichotomy of engagement and distance is especially acute when he remarks that “you not only feel something but also feel yourself feeling it.” His fascination with evil, which both repulses and intrigues him, also stems from his divided self. Because he profoundly doubts his own identity, he finds in criminals and evil...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)