Nick Bantock stands apart from the other authors that I’ve reviewed so far, because he’s not just a great writer; he’s also an excellent artist. At the start of the 1990s, he burst onto the scene with the first installment of his Griffin and Sabine series and, even now, this dynamic collection of illustrated epistles remains his most highly regarded work.
The Griffin and Sabine books are the perfect fusion of Bantock’s literary and artistic talents, but I’d be lying if I said they were all equally good. Out of the seven part series, the first trilogy is the most compelling. It has a momentum and continuity that propels readers from one volume to the next. The second trilogy attempted to revive the narrative after a conspicuous hiatus and, while they were strong in their own right, they didn’t quite do the first books (or the overall story arch) justice. The final book in the series is little more than an addendum produced to fill in a few blanks and, possibly, cash in on some nostalgia. If readers came to it on its own, they’d certainly be intrigued, but in the broader context of the series, it doesn’t live up to its fore-bearers.
In addition to his infamous seven-part saga, Bantock’s produced four other novels: I loved one, disliked another, and found the other two pretty much equally good.
I’ll start with my least favourite: Windflower. This story deals with the nomadic nation of Capolan, but it’s not the first time that Bantock described this enigmatic culture. Back in 1997, he introduced the world to Capolan with an intriguing art box and it was the perfect teaser. It included just enough information to leave audiences eager for more. Unfortunately, Windflower didn’t live up to its predecessor. Compared to Bantock’s other works, I seem to recall that Windflower has the most text and the least illustration. This imbalance is one significant strike against it. Like Griffin and Sabine, as well as The Venetian’s Wife, this story focuses on a metaphysical love affair. While the trope is successful elsewhere, it somehow falls flat here. I’m not sure, but I think it might be because the central affair is too convoluted. We can all handle a fictional love triangle, but a pentagon? Too much. It might also be worth noting that Windflower is a some sort of collaboration with someone named Edoardo Ponti. The details of this collaboration are not clear to me and I’d love to give Mr. Ponti the benefit of the doubt, but could he be the reason this is Bantock’s weakest novel? We may never know.
Several months ago, when I started drafting this review, I found it so hard to remember whether I preferred The Venetian’s Wife or The Forgetting Room, I resolved to read them both over again and refresh my memory. Now, after having done so, I’m hardly better off than when I started. These are both fun, interesting page-turners, but they both suffer from certain weaknesses, like an odd lack of conflict which leaves readers with a feeling that everything came together too easily. These books also employ an excessive dose of ambiguity and hand-waving when it comes to their endings. So, not only is it hard to believe how effortlessly things are resolved, it’s also hard to understand exactly what those resolutions consisted of. At a push though, I think Forgetting Room is slightly more sophisticated than Venetian’s Wife. What it lacks in fantasy, it makes up for in pacing and character development.
Last, but not least, is The Museum at Purgatory. This might be my absolute favourite Bantock novel and the one I’d be the first to recommend to new-comers (though, full disclosure, re-reading those other two novels made me wonder just how much I’ve forgotten about this one as well). I love this book for typical Bantock reasons i.e. great art and enjoyable writing, but the essential premise might be the part I love the most: the waiting room of death, the lobby of eternity. Bantock isn’t the only person willing to play with notions of the afterlife’s antechamber (for other examples, check out the Japanese film, Afterlife; Kevin Brockmeier’s novel, A Brief History of the Dead; or my own short story, Last Laugh), but he does it in a whimsical way that’s surely all his own.
Now, as I’ve pointed out previously, I focus these author reviews on novels, but in Bantock’s case, I need to give an honorable mention to his, both of his puzzle books. Like his novels, they’re wonderfully illustrated and, my favourite of the two, The Egyptian Jukebox, is also full of great stories. Dubious Documents lacks that narrative strength, but it is still beautiful and fun to solve.
So, if you’re interested in Bantock, start with the Museum at Purgatory or the first three books of the Griffin and Sabine Saga (Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook, and the Golden Mean) and if you have extra time, try out The Forgetting Room, The Venetian’s Wife, and the second Griffin and Sabine Trilogy. Don’t waste your time with Windflower or the last installment of the G & S saga unless you’re desperate for more of a Bantock fix. Even then, you’re better off with The Egyptian’s Jukebox.
- The Museum at Purgatory
- Griffin and Sabine/Sabine’s Notebook/The Golden Mean
- The Forgetting Room
- The Venetian’s Wife
- The Gryphon/Alexandria/The Morning Star
- Windflower – with Edoardo Ponti
- The Pharos Gate
Next, I think I’ll try someone a little more lowbrow: Bukowski.