The Singularities by John Banville review – theoretical physics meets playful storytelling

<span>Photograph: Mike Kipling Photography/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Mike Kipling Photography/Alamy

There is often a sense, reading John Banville, that there’s little he doesn’t know about the competing ironies of truth-telling and fiction. He has long enjoyed a brilliant gift for constructing word-made worlds replete with all home comforts and then allowing you to see the joins. The Singularities, his 20th novel under his own name, is something of a definitive articulation of his mastery of those dark arts, as well as another enjoyable quest into the ways in which we make sense of the world through make-believe.

It begins with a rhetorical question about all the above: “Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say?” The “he”, we discover, is Freddie Montgomery, murderous protagonist of Banville’s 1989 novel The Book of Evidence. The sentence in question is both a long stretch in prison and a reminder that an author is always at liberty to put his creations on day release. Montgomery has been shut up, a closed book for a while, but here he is, brought back to life, with a new adopted name – Felix Mordaunt – and a zippy Sprite sports car in which to explore the world. Things, however, it slowly becomes clear, are not what they used to be. This is not only a factor of the arrested time and space of incarceration – “prison had winnowed out the profusion of things, but now he was to be thrown back into the middle of the muddle” – but also a reflection of his creator’s restless vocation. Banville has imagined many other worlds since 1989, as his villain is now free to discover.

The book wears its self-references lightly and Banville’s writing remains beautifully exact

All roads lead to Arden House, an ancient estate in County Wexford, once the childhood home of Montgomery/Mordaunt – or so he believed – but now the long-standing residence of the Godley family, whom Banville’s readers will recollect from his 2009 book The Infinities. Adam Godley, now deceased, was in that novel a wayward physicist celebrated for a series of equations that proved the existence of parallel universes. He returns here, in spirit at least, to emphasise the point.

What follows is a kind of country-house melodrama as imagined by the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (who, you will recall, first proposed his theory of multiverses in a lecture in Dublin in 1952). Banville’s characters slip in and out of the overlapping worlds of his own imagining, like unwitting characters in an elevated bedroom farce. One theme of Godley’s proof of simultaneously competing realities was the realisation that Greek gods were alive and kicking and behind-the scenes players at Arden House. That Olympian plotting returns here in the voice of one of Banville’s narrators, a garrulous “godlet” amused by goings-on down below. Storytelling duties are shared with William Jaybey (whose surname echoes the author’s initials), Godley’s biographer, who has taken a sabbatical from his role as the Axel Vander chair of deconstruction studies (Vander was the academic with a Nazi past in Banville’s 2002 novel Shroud) to go through the physicist’s papers.

Related: John Banville: ‘There’s been a creeping retreat into infantilism’

If all this makes The Singularities sound like hard work, the opposite is the case. The book wears its self-references lightly, Banville’s writing remains beautifully exact and there is no need to be in on all the private jokes to enjoy those always nearer the surface of his prose. There is also a point to the playfulness. Few novelists are as alive as Banville to the edge of theoretical physics that suggests “every increase in our knowledge of the nature of reality acts directly upon that reality”. It is a thrill to watch him work his way through the implications of that in his fictional worlds – while never forgetting that he also has a story to tell.

• The Singularities by John Banville is published by Knopf (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply