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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Book of Evidence (1989) by John Banville

Book Review
The Book of Evidence  (1989)
 by John Banville

   I would hope, by the time I made into the 1980's section of the 1001 Books list, that I would have at least heard of all of the major authors.  He actually won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, which is the year before I started this project.   So here I am, 2017, learning about Irish author for the first time, via an Everyman's Library dual publication of The Book of Evidence and The Sea.   It's embarrassing, but it probably is evidence that Banville hasn't really crossed the Atlantic ocean in any substantial way.   I can understand it- the authors that John Banville draws comparisons to:  Nabokov, Proust and James Joyce, all come from the stylish/experimental side of the novel family tree.

  Banville is on record saying he wants to bring the same depth of experience to prose that one experiences from reading poetry.    The Book of Evidence, which itself was short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a dark tale featuring a highly unreliable narrator, Freddy Montgomery, a classic existential anti-hero who narrates The Book of Evidence from an Irish prison cell, where he awaits sentencing for his senseless murder of a house maid in the course of even more senseless attempt to steal a 16th century painting from the estate of some family friends.

  Calling ole Freddy an "unreliable narrator" gets to the heart of what The Book of Evidence is "about" in a serious-critical sense.  Montgomery is writing out what he imagines to be his testimony in his upcoming trial- a trial that will never occur.  He addresses the Judge of his case and repeatedly observes that it is unclear which parts of his tale are true and un-true.  Since one imagines that untruth in this context would involve making one look better in front of the Court, it comes as surprise that Montgomery's own recollections could hardly be less flattering.

  The portrait that emerges is a man who is as close to unredeemable as exists in modern literature.  That his redemption never arrives won't surprise anyone familiar with serious literature.  At the same time, The Book of Evidence is a beautiful book, and Banville is an excellent writer.  He's worth looking up.


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