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Oxfam BookClub Review: The Book of Evidence by John Banville

John Banville

John BanvilleFor their January meeting the Book Group at Oxfam Muswell Hill read The Book of Evidence (1989) by John Banville.

John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945.  He has a very distinctive style that is admired by many writers and critics.  In 2005 he was awarded the Booker Prize for The Sea and is considered to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  In an interview in 1995 he said he aimed to give his writing, ‘the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has’.  We all agreed that his style is elaborate especially his generous use of adjectives and adverbs which really do give his writing a denseness – to skip-read a Banville novel is to miss the writer’s reason for creating it. At one point he describes gin as tasting of ‘twilight and mists and dead maidens’ (how Irish can you get!). Such luxurious sentence construction is not common among contemporary writers who tend to strive to reduce sentences to the bare minimum. There were differences of opinion about such intense prose; some of us enjoyed the pleasure of luxuriating in the poetical passages while others found them excessive.

The Book of Evidence is the first of a trilogy all of which follow the life of Freddie Montgomery, a one-time scientist who specialised in chance and probability theory, who has a powerful appreciation of the arts and classics. The author uses the main character to explore the concept of identity and its relationship to a person’s perceptions of the world. To enable this, the novel is written in the first person.  We debated how satisfactory we found first person narratives as a prose style – some members of the group found it annoying that characters who clearly have opinions and a rich personal life, cannot be explored except through the eyes of the main character – Freddie – who sees himself as an outsider and is an unreliable narrator. Other members of the group felt that the richness of the prose style allows the reader to connect with Freddie’s perceptions of his world and his self-deception. As John Banville’s writing is subtle and complex it allows the reader to see beyond Freddie’s perceptions of the people he encounters.  We were reminded of the writing of Nabokov, especially Lolita and the situational humour of Waterhouse’s Billy Liar or Amis’s Lucky Jim.

Freddie is in prison on remand for a murder he committed following the theft of a painting. He had been living a dilettante life somewhere in the Mediterranean until an unwise loan went wrong and his wife and child were declared hostages. He has returned to Ireland to raise the money to pay off the loan, but is overwhelmed by the situations and attitudes he encounters. Now, he is reviewing his life, sometimes addressing the reader, at others the imagined judge or jury at the trial he is expecting.  He is not attempting to prove his innocence but by applying the theories of chance to what has happened he reasons that he was not directly responsible for his actions.

Some members of the group found Freddie an unlikeable character, which made the novel hard to read; others felt that, although weak, he was very human. We did not consider he could be labelled as a ‘sociopath’ – he was more of an opportunist – acting in certain ways, ‘because he could’.

Could any of us be sure about how we would behave when under pressure?

Please see the Groups, Clubs & Associations listing for more details about the Book Review Club.


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