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John Banville: The Book of Evidence

There is something about Banville’s style that, frankly, I find annoying. Some have called it poetic and they may have a point but to me it all too often seems overblown, artificial, affected. This book is no different. Indeed, it seems even more overblown than his previous work. Not that it is a bad work. It certainly isn’t. It’s just that this style detracts from the story. The story is nominally – what? A confession (in the legal sense)? A confession (in the religious sense)? A mea culpa? Or just a general rant? Indeed, that is the start of the problem. He (the writer, Freddie Montgomery) seems to be writing to the judge but who would possibly write to a judge like that?

Anyway. Freddie is an amoral Irishman. He is a scientist. He has lived in the USA. He is married. He has returned to Ireland, where he finds his mother living with Joanne. When his father died, he had inherited some money, which he had used for his study trip to the USA. His mother seemed to have inherited some paintings but now, to his disgust, she has sold them to an art dealer (with whose daughter he had had a threesome sexual romp a few years back). He goes to the dealer’s home but the dealer tells him that he overpaid for the paintings and was, in fact, doing his mother a favour. Freddie is annoyed and the next day (after having not paid his hotel bill and stolen a car) returns to the dealer’s home and steals a painting in a farcical routine. He takes along the servant girl who had helped him and then tried to stop him. On the car drive, he strikes her with a hammer. She later dies. Meanwhile he dumps the car and painting and goes and hangs out with an old family friend, Charlie French, expecting to be arrested at any moment. Charlie is supportive (and also appears to be linked to a bunch of gangsters) but the police are slow off the mark but do eventually arrest him.

That Freddie is amoral and has few if any redeeming features makes it difficult for Banville to keep our interest. However, despite the style, he does keep us along, doubtless because we can’t wait to see Freddie get his comeuppance. But Banville is not too concerned with justice and retribution but, rather, with showing us a portrait of a man who is so thoroughly focused on himself that his ultimate fate, while clear, is not key to the novel. But I think I preferred reading about Raskolnikov.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Secker & Warburg