The Reserve

Written by Russell Banks
Review by Marina Oliver

Set in America in 1936 against the background of the Depression and the growth of Fascism in Europe, in Spain and Germany, this is the story of several damaged people. Artist Jordan Groves, a serial adulterer (despite his marriage and two young sons) and fervent anti-Fascist, is invited to look at paintings by a rival at the secluded holiday home of Dr Cole in the Reserve, a privately owned area of the Adirondacks. He arrives unconventionally and controversially by landing his seaplane on the lake. He meets Dr Cole’s daughter, the beautiful, twice-married and twice-divorced socialite Vanessa, who tries to seduce many of the men she meets and is not averse to tempting Jordan.

Their strange relationship develops against the lovingly described scenery of the mountains. Jordan is anxious to fight in Spain with his friends, Hemingway and Dos Passos. Vanessa discovers a family secret that is destroying her fragile sanity. Other people, including Jordan’s wife, suffer.

I found the opening chapters slow to grip me, but it was worth persevering as the characters are revealed and their actions lead to unexpected and sometimes horrifying events. Running alongside the main story, interspersed in italics between the main chapters, is an account of what happens in the following year, 1937. This was probably the only way to complete the story without having a long explanatory epilogue, which would have been a letdown after the dramatic ending, but I did not like the device. It seemed false, and such foreshadowing destroys the tension inherent in the main story.