I enjoyed the language in this novel. Banville just writes well. At times it is a bit flowery, but he nails it so frequently that this is forgivable. I enjoyed the premise, but was distracted enough by a few things that I cannot grant him five stars.
First, I kept wondering about all the other people in the world who were dying simultaneously. If it is Hermes's job to escort souls into the afterlife then he doesn't really have all day to wait around (especially because in the end Adam doesn't actually die). Instead of being able to eavesdrop on the household, Hermes should be one busy dude, fluttering around the world collecting souls every second.
Second, I did not quite understand why a few chapters were narrated by old Adam. Most of the book was narrated by Hermes, who (of course, he is a deity) plays the role of omniscient 3rd person narrator. Occasionally he comments using first person as an aside to the reader, but for the most part he describes whichever character he is following in 3rd person. There are a couple points, though, at which we get first person narration from old Adam on his deathbed. I was not sure how to interpret. Clearly it is a melding of sorts: Hermes embodies Adam (and is this how Adam wakes up and recovers?), but when Hermes embodies Duffy he does not take Duffy's point of view; he still retains his god-vision. It came across as sloppy (and I dare not accuse Banville or his editors of being sloppy), but really I could not justify this change in perspective.
Third, I did not like the forced mythological "history" moments. They did not seem to flow into the story, instead they really felt like they were just dropped in to explain to a reader who might not otherwise be familiar with greek mythology the history of these gods. I also found myself wondering why Banville didn't invent some newer myths. Clearly, the reader would not be familiar with stories that he invented, but he could have given a few modern examples in which some god or other had caused a disturbance. Maybe even utilize some of recent events (Tsunamis, Hurricanes, Volcanic eruptions) and give a fantastica backstory involving the god's anger.
The story itself is less plot driven and more of a character study. The entire novel takes place during one day in which the reader (and Hermes) gets to peep at the private interactions of the family. The beauty is in the commentary (prose as poetry) and the apt descriptions of human relationships and interaction.
I enjoyed Adam's musings on solipsism and otherness: "How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective."
I also liked Hermes's thoughts on both the ungrateful human-ness of people and the discomfort of immortality: "The lengths we went to, the pains we took, that it should be plausible in every detail....And to what end was all this craft, this labour, this scrupulous dissembling--to what end? So that the mud mend that Prometheus and Athene between them made might think themselves the lords of creation. We have been good to you, giving you what you thought you wanted--yes, and look what you have done with it....And Heaven--what is that? For us, the deathless ones, there is no Heaven, of Hell, either, no up, no down, only the infinite here, which is a kind of not-here. Think of that."
Along with this ingratitude is our (as humans) inability to appreciate the now (one of my favorite themes!): "among his many torments, the thought of all that he had and did not prize as he should have when he had it. A trove of experience spurned as it was happening because it was simply that, something that was happening and not a thing anticipated or recollected. Now: that is a word he never appreciated the meaning of, until now."
And yet, Banville compliments our ability to love. Clearly, the gods are jealous of this ability to "afford each other sanctuary, excuse each other their failings, their sweats and smells, their lies and subterfuges, above all their ineradicable selfobsession." but he also describes romantic love ultimately in selfish and narcissistic terms: "Show me a pair of them at it and I will show you two mirrors, rosetinted, flatteringly distorted, locked in an embrace of mutual incomprehension. They love so they may see their pirouetting selves marvelously reflected in the loved one's eyes." Finally, he argues (but as Adam Sr., not as Hermes) that love is not unless it is unconditional and self-less: "to love properly and in earnest one would have to do it anonymously, or at least in an undeclared fashion, so as not to seem to ask anything in return, since asking and getting are the antithesis of love--if, as I say, I have the concept aright, which from all I have said and all that has been said to me so far it appears I do not. It is very puzzling. Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possess, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods--well. Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human love is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent." I find it fascinating that the human would have a higher standard than the god; and yet neither is able to achieve their stated goal.
Overall there were some poignant and interesting turns of phrase and it was a thought provoking novel.