The Book of Evidence
by John Banville
1989 / 219 pages
Rating – 8.5
Freddie Montgomery, a 38-year-old scientist, seems to bumble through life and now he’s out of luck and out of money and seriously wanted by some really bad guys. Leaving his wife on some island he heads back to Ireland to see if he can raise the money. This man is hugely amoral – he is a totally arrogant lying egoist.
When the book opens he, as first person narrator throughout the book, is addressing a judge. He is in jail for murder – horrible, viscous, ugly, beastly murder. As he takes us back through his life, the events leading up to the crime he never really defends himself but never blames himself either. He’s often drunk and almost sociopathic in his lack of feeling for anyone but himself. Freddie is a totally and thoroughly unreliable witness, narrator, friend, etc.
Banville used the case of Malcolm Edward MacArthur, a Dublin eccentric as the basis for the novel. The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989.
Banville writes in a dense, darkly humorous, insightful as well as highly creative way. He’s often uses somewhat archaic or Irish language and sometimes some pretty intense symbolism. The first two are true of this book but the symbolism is a tad lighter here, I think.
There is a painting which is central to the book: Portrait of a Woman With Gloves by Franz Hals (mid 17th century, Holland)
** S ** P ** O ** I ** L ** E ** R ** ! **
I suppose the mystery here is what in the world did Freddie do? You find out about half way through the book, but in my very contemporary American opinion, it’s not quite up to the reaction Freddie has in his glory-hog mind – but that fits his personality. The man is unreliable in his braggadocio.
But this changes the whole tone of the novel – from a grisly murderer’s tale to the tale of a man who is genuinely sorry for his act.
And a rather scholarly analysis: