John Banville’s stunning powers of mimicry are brilliantly on display in this engrossing novel, the darkly compelling confession of an improbable murderer.
Freddie Montgomery is a highly cultured man, a husband and father living the life of a dissolute exile on a Mediterranean island. When a debt comes due and his wife and child are held as collateral, he returns to Ireland to secure funds. That pursuit leads to murder. And here is his attempt to present evidence, not of his innocence, but of his life, of the events that lead to the murder he committed because he could. Like a hero out of Nabokov or Camus, Montgomery is a chillingly articulate, self-aware, and amoral being, whose humanity is painfully on display.
Comparisons with Camus's The Stranger and Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment are not lightly made, but spring irresistibly to mind after finishing Banville's dazzling novel, which was short-listed for Britain's Booker Award and won Ireland's very rich Guinness Peat Aviation Award, adjudicated by Graham Greene. Banville, who has written three previous books but is not widely known here, is literary editor of the Irish Times. His protagonist and first-person narrator is Frederick Montgomery, a former scientist who has taken to drifting aimlessly through life, keenly self-conscious, a brilliant observer of himself and his surroundings, but with no coherent moral center. In the course of a pathetically absurd robbery attempt--he is trying to steal a painting, with which he has become obsessed, from a neighbor of his mother--he brutally and pointlessly kills a maidservant. He tells his story as he sits in jail awaiting his trial, imagining it as a courtroom statement. But is his account--hallucinatory, spellbinding, full of the poetry and pity of life--true? In response to that question from a police inspector, the novel's last chilling line: ``All of it. None of it. Only the shame.'' Banville's style, which is spare yet richly eloquent, and his extraordinary psychological penetration, are what lift his novel to a level of comparison with the greatest writers of crime and guilt. It is difficult to imagine a reader who would not find The Book of Evidence both terrifying and moving. (Apr . )