Introduction

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Delbanco, Nicholas 1942–

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Delbanco is a British-born American author of novels, poems, and short stories. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Delbanco is one of those consistently highly acclaimed writers few readers have heard of, much less read. "Sherbrookes," his eighth novel, is also sure to be critically well received. A wonderful and strange book, written in lyrical yet spare prose, it contains insights few writers can claim…. Delbanco steers clear of grotesque or Gothic overtones; he keeps his story clean and taut. And although his characters and their lives are peculiar, if not unique, they are always credible, and their story is intriguing and compelling. (p. 64)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the November 6, 1978, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), November 6, 1978.

Garrett Epps

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[Nicholas Delbanco has depicted the] underside of family life in Possession (1977) and now Sherbrookes, the first two volumes of a trilogy about the waning days of a wealthy New England family….

Besides the hovering ghost of Judah, Sherbrookes has many other elements of gothic romance: an ancient mansion, a family curse, an unbreakable will, a mysterious pregnancy, and a moonlight suicide. Certainly, it seems to me that Sherbrookes does not operate like a realistic novel—by means of character, incident, or plot. Many of the characters are blanks; this is particularly true of Ian Sherbrooke, who seems at first almost like an empty cell awaiting the entry of a new genetic core, the spirit of his dead father. The book's movement is more in the fashion of a long poem, or a series of vibrant images held in rigid frames. There is a moment late in the book when Maggie, whose lusty ways in youth had earned her the title of "old Sherbrooke's bare-naked wife," watches unobserved as her son's lover walks naked across a field, and recognizes the arrival of her own replacement, "a brown-haired image of herself when young, the same straight back, thin hips, and long-legged gait." It is not a likely moment, or even a plausible one, but it is not an image I will soon forget.

Delbanco's prose is consciously poetic as well—alliterative, allusive, determinedly elegant. He is at his best when rendering the Vermont landscape, or when detailing the steps of building a house. But in much of the rest of the book, the effort expended on fine prose makes the story tough going. Like a horse keeping an unfamiliar gait, Delbanco is prone to missteps which reduce him to a lumbering walk….

In addition, he has chosen to tell novels in the narrative present. In the hands of a supple stylist … this device can give a story a seductive immediacy, narrowing the distance between reader and character. But, as used by Delbanco, it involves the reader in a confusion of tenses, and by the time he has finished sorting out "he is," "they would," "she had," and "he did," reader and narrative are barely within hailing distance. And, finally, Delbanco has a fatal weakness for clichés, balancing them in his characters' minds like teetering rocks: "Six of one, he argues, since he's in the neighborhood; half a dozen of the other," or "You take, Maggie knew, a stitch in time."

The result is a promising novel, rich in myth and allusion, gone stale, gray-toned, and ponderous One can admire Delbanco's learning and respect his effort; but, when the encounter is over, we are left with a weary, disappointed feeling of loss.

Garrett Epps, "New England Gothic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 31, 1978, p. G9.

Tim Myers

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Delbanco's vision [in Sherbrookes] is fundamentally pessimistic in a time when this view has been criticized as being purely negative and unconstructive, threatening the future of fiction. Yet Delbanco deserves to be read precisely because in confronting his characters with the realities of death and isolation, he gives them compensating acts of love, will and endurance. (p. 41)

Tim Myers, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 10, 1979.

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Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 167)