I picked this book up to have a quick look. I was more than likely to just put it down again. As a younger self I had picked up John Banville’s prize-winning novel The Sea rolled my eyes and went under. I didn’t get beyond the first chapter. The Book of Evidence has redeemed John Banville. I’m sure there’ll be fireworks in writers’ heaven and he’ll be glad another reader has seen the light. Now I’ve read one and a bit of his books I intend to read more.
This is a book of grotesques because the narrator himself is grotesque. He is in prison for a murder that he freely admits he did. He’s trying to work out his motive –why he killed. The conclusion he reaches is he murdered a working-class woman, a servant, not because she had thwarted his robbery attempt, but because he could. The Book of Evidence is not a mea culpa.
It is more than that. Fredrick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgommery (Freddie) from the ramshackle estate of Coolgrange in Ireland looks at the world and admits he hadn’t really seen it. He looks at himself and he’s not sure what he is. The only things he’s sure of his voice and sense of entitlement. The reader is in the privileged positon of seeing Freddie and the world he has created.
Think of an oversized boy man like Donald John Trump, born around the same time but obviously smarter (as are 99% of the population of the world he might well blow up). Freddie has had some education, thinks himself, in another life, an academic prospering in America, but threw it all over for a woman, Daphne. Well, not threw it over, exactly. Things happen to Freddie or they don’t. He’s not really culpable. Not really.
The plot is simple. Freddie and his wife and child have washed up on a Mediterranean island. It’s not clear where Freddie gets his money, but he likes the better things in life and has no intention of living within his means. It amused him to blackmail an ex-patriot drug dealer Randolph and obtain sizeable loans he has no intention, no notion, of paying back. But Randolph is out of his depth. His ear is hacked off by Senor Aguirre who now holds Freddie’s debts. The ‘silver haired hidalgo’ thinks himself a gentleman and comes to a gentleman’s agreement that he will keep Freddie’s wife and child on the island while Freddie goes home to raise the money.
Freddy has not been home in years, has no notion of how he’ll raise the ransom, but, of course, it’s a fait accompli. Forces greater than Freddie seem to be pushing him on. Pushing him home to his and the chamber maid’s fate.
A washed blue dawn was breaking in Madrid. I stepped out of the station and watched a flock of birds wheeling and tumbling…and the strangest thing, a gust of euphoria, or something like euphoria, swept through me, making me tremble and bringing tears to my eyes…I was at a turning point, you will tell me, just there the future forked for me and I took the wrong path without noticing—that’s what you tell me isn’t it, you, who must have meaning in everything, who lust after meaning…I have declared my faith.
Reductionism, standing apart from his self, Freddie does not see clearly, but understanding of his self, and the world around him, creep up on him. He is not unique in this. What makes him unique it the murder he commits. He is the prosecution and defence witness. In every way he is found wanting. But Freddie is someone you know. Someone like Trump. He lives and breathes in The Book of Evidence. On this evidence Banville has created an authentic voice with a knowing approximation to the truth. Read on.