Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Book of Evidence

A strong undertow within John Banville's 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence brings us back to The Stranger, The Talented Mr. Ripley or Crime and Punishment.

Freddy Montgomery had been living a low-life heir's existence on the continent. When he runs up significant debts, the shady men to whom he owes money decide to take his wife and disabled son hostage, so to speak.

Half searching for a solution, half looking to escape, Freddy returns to his native Ireland. There, he descends into a spiralling madness which culminates in Freddy's murdering an innocent woman while he attempts to steal a painting that once belonged to his now bankrupt family. Start to finish, The Book of Evidence is Freddy's detailed jailhouse testimonial of this atrophied descent.

As I processed the fact that Banville is Irish and that much of this novel would take place in Ireland, my mind wanted to align itself with certain preconceived expectations of the type of characters Irish fiction traditionally delivers. Perhaps we too often expect protagonists to be toiling yet noble, lovable yet flawed, brawling yet benevolent, simple yet poetically lyrical. Freddy Montgomery is none of these things.

(Again, this comes from the perspective of Slimbo's relatively shallow encounters with Irish fiction).

There seems to be a formulaic trend in popular Irish fiction - to use the now trite milieu of toiling lyrical soulfully aching working class next-door poets who'll portray the enduring human spirit and the over-arching ability for love to conquer tragedy.

The Book of Evidence wants us to see an entirely different Ireland. The Montgomery's are upper middle class inhabitants of a nihilistic world which easily implodes upon the death of its patriarch. The surviving Montgomery's exist in a state of suspended reality, demonstrating none of the grit nor moral groundings exuded by the beloved characters of the traditional Irish paradigm of my expectations. And it appears this causal flaw is irreparably aligned with the concept of class - a struggle I feel no other Irish writer has ever yet challenged me to engage.

This was a haunting, beautifully written book.


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