It seems fitting that my first five-star is for an Irish author read for the Reading Ireland Month 2016 challenge. Further, WordPress just pinged me to congratulate me on five years. A newly discovered author + a stellar book + a happy fifth + an uptick in optimism = a five-star review. Who knew?
You’d think I’d just hit “publish” on a list of superlatives, but as much as I love John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, I understand why some might call it bleak or meandering. More than with other books, I’m aware of how my personal preferences color my opinion here. The Book of Evidence is precisely the kind of book I could never write and it leaves me awestruck. It’s a master class in writing.
The story is told in first-person from Freddie Montgomery’s cell, where he is being held for murder. From prison, he recounts the events that led to his downfall: in debt to rough people, he abandoned his wife and child to return to Ireland. After learning that his family had sold the paintings he’d hoped to sell himself, he kills a young girl when stealing one back. The two biggest plot points (the murder, Freddie’s arrest) don’t occur until the latter half of the book and the reader knows to expect them from the book’s early pages (and back cover). Any/all surprises and tension come from small revelations in the characterizations of Freddie, his mother, and a family friend.
As a writer, I want to know my readers will be able to distinguish between me and my characters. This inclination is the seed of weak writing because while I’m worrying what people might think of me, I’m penning a half-assed character. Reading The Book of Evidence reminded me how effective it is for a writer to push all-in. More importantly, at no point did I think that Banville had a deep desire to bludgeon anyone just because he wrote the scene so convincingly. In Atonement, Ian McEwan describes this hangup:
Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune […] (6)
The pacing of The Book of Evidence is top-notch. All major plot points are on the book jacket so tension can only rise from a careful unveiling of small details and sharp writing. This story is wholly execution dependent—it hangs on the strength of Banville’s prose. Ordinarily, I like books that progress quickly and don’t take ages to unspool known quantities, but Banville convinced me that his elegant prose is worth patience. In his hands, passages that dwell on psychological or philosophical elements are illuminating rather than pretentious.
Other possible irritants are smoothed away by Freddie’s self-awareness:
Coincidences come out strangely flattened in court testimony—I’m sure you have noticed this, your honour—rather like jokes that should be really funny but fail to raise a single laugh. Accounts of the most bizarre doings of the accused are listened to with perfect equanimity, yet the moment some trivial simultaneity of events is mentioned feet begin to shuffle in the gallery, and counsel clear their throats, and reporters take to gazing dreamily at the mouldings on the ceiling. These are not so much signs on incredulity, I think, as of embarrassment. It is as if someone, the hidden arranger of all this intricate, amazing affair, who up to now never put a foot wrong, has suddenly gone that bit too far, has tried to be just a little too clever, and we are all disappointed, and somewhat sad. (60-61)
Coincidences do happen in real life, of course, but they don’t hold up well in fiction. Just an acknowledgement of this fact (and a well-written one!) is enough that I didn’t grumble about the situation in question. This passage is typical of Freddie’s self-awareness. He doesn’t try to excuse himself, but points to his nature and the sequence of events.
There are flashes of dark humor and twists which reveal Freddie to not be wholly truthful. It’s hard to know how to read him despite his apparent frankness, but the crime itself is unambiguous. It’s like something out of McCarthy: neither stylized nor obfuscated, it’s brutal and revealed in a matter-of-fact tone. It hits even harder given that the preceding theft is a comedy of errors. Freddie is so normal in his recitation of mundane details that I am able to imagine whatever he describes with unexpected clarity, even things that are foreign.
How did this not win the 1989 Man Booker Prize? The Remains of the Day has been added to my queue for no other reason than to see how it squares against The Book of Evidence.
On Freddie’s reunion with his mother:
Hello, mother, I said, and looked away from her, casting about me crossly for something neutral on which to concentrate. I was annoyed already. She has that effect on me, I have only to stand before her and instantly the irritation and resentment begin to seethe in my breast. I was surprised. I had thought that after ten years there would be at least a moment of grace between our meeting and the first attack of filial heartburn, but not a bit of it, here I was, jaw clenched, glaring venomously at a tuft of weed sprouting from a crack in the stone steps where she stood. She was not much changed. Her bosom, which cries out to be called ample, had descending to just above her midriff. Also she had grown a little moustache. She wore baggy corduroy trousers and a cardigan with sagging pockets. She came down the steps to me and laughed again. You have put on weight, Freddie, she said, you’ve got fat. Then she reached out—this is true, I swear it—and took hold of a piece of my stomach and rolled it playfully between a finger and thumb. This woman, this woman—what can I say? I was thirty-eight, a man of parts, with a wife and a son and an impressive Mediterranean tan, I carried myself with gravitas and a certain faint air of menace, and she, what did she do?—she pinched my belly and laughed her phlegmy laugh. Is it any wonder I have ended up in jail? Is it? The dog, seeing that I was to be accepted, sidled up to me and tried to lick my hand, which gave me an opportunity to deliver it a good hard kick in the ribs. That made me feel better, but not much, and not for long. (42)
How does The Remains of the Day beat this? I can’t wait to find out.
Translation: Read it. If you know me IRL, you’re even welcome to borrow my copy. I might pick up a loaner version for this purpose. It’s a bit grim, but I have cheery loaners for after…