Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Birchwood” as Want to Read:
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview


3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  360 Ratings  ·  33 Reviews
An early classic from the Man Booker-prize winning author of The Sea.

I am therefore I think. So starts John Banville’s 1973 novel Birchwood, a novel that centers around Gabriel Godkin and his return to his dilapidated family estate. After years away, Gabriel returns to a house filled with memories and despair. Delving deep into family secrets—a cold father, a tortured moth
Paperback, 176 pages
Published May 8th 2007 by Vintage (first published 1973)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Birchwood, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Birchwood

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,002)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Jun 25, 2008 James rated it it was amazing
Blending the gothic with the romantic and a vicious and sometimes callous dark comedy, this book chronicles the last days of both the Birchwood estate and the descent of Ireland into madness during the Great Famine, known better in the states as the Potato Famine. The story deals with themes of dynasty and how people tend to grow to echo each other; because of this, the book doesn't make for a readily thrilling read. However, Banville's sardonic humor is matched by an elegant prose that at times ...more
Feb 08, 2012 Christin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 08, 2009 Caroline rated it it was amazing
Birchwood, John Banville. Extraoridnary writer. His language and talent is wonderful. The journey of Gabriel Godkin from his boyhood home, in flight, through the circus of the area, during the potato famine, back to his childhood home and the revelations of his parentage, father, mother sister of his father, inheritance struggles with his cousin, read brother Michael, and all the deaths both of the tenants of the area and the dreams of everyone is a sad and awesome tale. I can’t say I loved it b ...more
Paula Dembeck
Apr 04, 2014 Paula Dembeck rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Steve Petherbridge
Jun 08, 2014 Steve Petherbridge rated it really liked it
Written by the now eminent John Banville in 1973.

Set around the 1840's, referencing the Great Famine and the British Occupation, Banville's novel centre's around the decline of a family in the "big house" caused by the madness, in-fighting and ineptitude of it's inhabitants.

As has now become his trademark, the literature is well crafted prose with John Banville displaying his awesome talent for creating interestingly and richly descriptive off-beat characters, no matter what the genre. I look fo
Jun 30, 2015 Trisha rated it it was amazing
John Banville is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and his books are proof that there’s more to a really good book than simply a compelling plot. This one is set in 19th century Ireland at a time when the potato famine was raging and the Molly Malones were destroying property and terrifying the landed gentry.

It’s narrated by its protagonist (Gabriel Godkin) who has returned to the broken down country estate he has inherited after having left it some years earlier to escape the chaos of li
Apr 20, 2015 Shawn rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
No one writes more beautifully than Banville, who is a master of the elegiac prose poem. If this sample hits home for you, you'll love this book:
“We climbed the steps, into the hall, and Mama, pressing a hand to her forehead, dropped a bunch of primroses on a chair and swept away to her room. The cluster of bruised flowers came slowly asunder, one fell, another, and then half of them tumbled in a flurry to the carpet, and behind me the tall clock creaked and clicked, and struck a sonorous bronze
Oct 10, 2009 Andrew rated it it was amazing
This book has very clear echoes of Proust, both in the writing style and in the sense of nostalgia that pervades the story of aristocratic decline. The references are clear and deliberate - in the very first chapter, Banville's narrator refers to his fragments of memory as "madeleines" and talks of his "search for time misplaced."

None of this boded very well for the novel - I had Proust on my night-table for ages, but every time I read it I fell asleep so quickly that I seemed to go backwards as
Oct 02, 2011 Eva rated it really liked it
Birchwood by John Banville is a lovely book that gets off to a ponderous, pretentious start. First line? “I am, therefore I think.” The second paragraph starts with “The name is Godkin, Gabriel.” The book came out in 1973 when Banville was under twenty so I’ll forgive him such pretensions, but the first few chapters are overwrought reminiscences that foreshadow all the events of the story set in Ireland. The people he describes as mad are not very mad by literary standards, but the story builds ...more
A. Mary
Dec 02, 2012 A. Mary rated it really liked it
Shelves: irish-novels
This novel has an unusual voice telling a dream-like story anchored in the historical realities of the 1840's. The prose is very dense, the narrative especially visual, matching the surrealism of its details. Gabriel Godkin, the young protagonist, is surrounded by his family, living in their estate house, which sounds very ordinary and predictable, but this bunch of characters has a jumbled collection of secrets and weaknesses and traits that makes them as much a circus as those who circle Irela ...more
Madiya Alsalty
Oct 28, 2013 Madiya Alsalty rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Read carefully this book and understand the ideas
Recommended to Madiya by: Amir kaviani
John Banville one of the best novels writer and I think I could not read his novels in a hurry, and he wrote this novel in his twenties from 1973 with his poetic and careful chosen phrases . Firstly, I was think about "what does the title mean"; birch-wood or (birch tree) means slender fast growing tree that has thin bark and bears catkins.He has put that name on an estate in Ireland.

Gabriel Godkin in the story is a man who returned to his disintegrating family and the reality of his family and
Jun 16, 2015 Konstantin rated it really liked it
Shelves: serious
One of John Banville's earlier works, portions of it can be recognized in his latter works. This story is about a family and its fall. Gabriel Godkin (the name itself somewhat portent) is the last heir and goes about telling of his childhood fraught with death and deception. He learns a secret; he leaves to discover its true meaning. And then when he returns nothing is the same. Banville has written here a kind of Irish-Gothic book in the vein of Faulkner, though the style is quite different. Th ...more
James Wharton
Dec 08, 2012 James Wharton rated it it was amazing
Birchwood is Banville at his best. It is a book about a man who comes home after being away for many years. The estate is run down and the place is filled with eccentric souls in strange situations. His grandmother is insane, his mother unhappy, and his father always treated him badly. The story is interesting, humorous, and once again, told in Banville's inimitable eloquent style. The description of the house and characters is incredible. The plot is well thought out and credible. In a way, Bir ...more
Jennifer  Sciolino-Moore
Is it possible to appreciate someone's writing and not care at all for their novel? That's the case here, with Banville and Birchwood and me. Banville is clearly talented and his prose is striking, but I just could not get into this novel. It is purposefully cloudy and obtuse and the first half of it had me wanting to put it down. The second half drew my attention, but the conclusion was anything but enlightening.

I just plain didn't like it.
It took me a long time to get past the first few pages, and I skimmed bits near the end. So I feel like I haven't completely read it, really. But I really enjoyed what I got. There's a focus on the dreamy unreality of memory and time which appeals to me. And the remembering-a-ruined-estate which to me evokes Rebecca. And it was kind of feminist-y, what with the narrator's preoccupation with vaginas and sympathy for women and love toward female figures when the males were all kind of violent and ...more
Feb 14, 2013 J. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: irish, fiction
Banville called Birchwood his ‘Irish novel’. Set in the time of the famine Gabriel Godkin is the young heir to the Godkin family estate. The house is falling to pieces around him reflecting the unraveling lives of his family. Gabriel runs away to join a traveling circus and look for his lost twin sister. Like most of Banville’s characters the protagonist is on a quest for meaning. This novella is very dark and gothic. I enjoyed the character of Granny Godkin. Banville is Ireland's greatest livin ...more
Apr 23, 2015 Rob rated it really liked it
Shelves: lit
With prose not as fine as some of his later works (but still quite excellent), this early Banville presents a world and cast of characters of Gormenghast-like quality. Beyond the picaresque facade, I'll have to ruminate for a while to see if any lessons on loyalty and the dissolution of a family can be extracted.
Mar 05, 2015 Kathi rated it liked it
Shelves: book-clubs
I agree with most of the reviews that the second half was far more interesting than the first. I did feel that it was a long way to go for the pay-off, but it was resolved completely in the end.
Jane Evans-Ryan
Feb 04, 2016 Jane Evans-Ryan rated it really liked it
Slim novel. Thrilling read. Plot was enthralling, but the prose won the day.
Nov 29, 2014 Tracey rated it it was amazing
Shelves: england-ireland
Before reading anything by Edna O'Brien or John Banville, I kept hearing about them as huge contributors to Irish writing. Last year, I read O'Brien's 'House of Splendid Isolation' and loved it - for its, well, hard-to-explain Irishness. Banville's 'Birchwood' also has elements of that same writing, but includes Gothic characters and Irish history - it is so gorgeously written, I spent time re-reading sentences and paragraphs to glean as much as I possibly could out of them. I can't wait to read ...more
European Douglas
Excellent early novel, very engaging and great narration add ever.
Jul 23, 2007 Eric rated it really liked it
at the risk of being reductive, the irish not only possess the gift of gab and hospitality, but also the ability to place poetic language against big ideas, great pain and unbridled passion. banville's a beaut. his powerful short novel not only thinks deeply about time, loss, family and various associated unmentionables, but even incorporates the potato famine without melodrama.
Serjeant Wildgoose
Written in his succulent prose, this is one of Banville's earliest works (1973) and my favourite of 3 read to date. It is a harsh, bleak tale of land and inheritance set against the horrors of Ireland before and during the Great Hunger.

Drenched in madness, violence and carnality it is a thoroughly rewarding read.
Mary Halpenny-killip
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 14, 2010 Issy rated it liked it
Shelves: resentreads
I think Banville is a frustrated poet. The writing is often beautiful but sometimes I was like "how did that guy get down in the yard when last sentence he was in the attic being threatened with a knife."
Lauren Albert
Jan 13, 2010 Lauren Albert rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This made me think of Southern Gothic fiction. The characters were Faulknerian. But I found the narrator unlikeable both as an adult and as a child and that made it hard to like the book.
John Thornberry
Aug 24, 2014 John Thornberry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
loved this book. I had forgot how brilliant John Banville is and I am sure this is my favourite so far even though it was an early work written in 1973.
Eamonn Barrett
Jul 17, 2011 Eamonn Barrett rated it liked it
An early Banville which explores questions like the Big House, the land question, memory, twinship and play in typically poetic and wonderful prose.
Joanne  Clarke Gunter
Nov 03, 2014 Joanne Clarke Gunter rated it liked it
Shelves: modern-fiction
My least favorite of the four Banville novels I have read. But I have come to the conclusion that all Banville writing is worth reading.
Aug 19, 2011 Frank rated it really liked it
Shelves: irish-authors
Tomorrow I'm going to write a joint review of Birchwood and Eclipse, which I'll post to both.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 33 34 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Bullfighting: Stories
  • A Skull in Connemara - Acting Edition
  • Enderby's Dark Lady
  • The Three Button Trick and Other Stories
  • Walk the Blue Fields: Stories
  • Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (Stones of Aran #1)
  • Castle Gay (Dickson McCunn, #2)
  • A Field Guide to Irish Fairies
  • Love and Summer
  • Inishowen
  • Set in Stone
  • Girl, 20
  • A Death in Summer (Quirke, #4)
Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children's novel and a reminiscence of growing up ...more
More about John Banville...

Share This Book

No trivia or quizzes yet. Add some now »

“We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. That first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in the darkened room, the end of love is forever two spent cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing.” 1 likes
More quotes…