The Book of Evidence by John Banville #readingirelandmonth23

To do the worst thing, the very worst thing, that’s the way to be free. I would never again need to pretend to myself to be what I was not.

The Book of Evidence, John Banville’s fascinating and slippery 1989 novel, posits itself as the confession of first-person narrator Frederick Montgomery, who is sitting in jail, awaiting his trial for murder.

Freddie, a former scientist, has been drifting aimlessly through life, living on a Mediterranean island with his wife Daphne and young son. Intently self-conscious and precisely observant, he lacks a certain moral core. Following a run-in with a connected island criminal, Freddie has had to return to his home ground of Ireland to raise some cash, thinking that he will sell some of his mother’s art collection, leaving his own family behind as collateral. Returning to the family estate he finds his mother is now raising Connemara ponies, a venture funded by the sale of said art to a neighbouring landowner. Obsessed with one painting in particular and driven by his need for money, Freddie stages a ridiculously risible robbery-attempt – in broad daylight and in full view of many witnesses – and in the process; he needlessly and brutally kills a housemaid. Fleeing his crime, Freddie holes up in the house of a family acquaintance by the sea and does nothing more than wait to be caught.

As Freddie tells his story, imagining it to be his courtroom statement, it soon becomes apparent that he is the most accidental of killers, a monstrous Everyman. His account; at turns hallucinatory, poetic, self-pitying and entrancing, lacks one thing. The ring of truth. Freddie is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and when asked at the end of the book how much of what he has written is true, his response is chilling. ‘All of it. None of it. Only the shame.’

Yet, Freddie, for all his disturbing qualities, is a charismatic character. His narrative voice is written with such immediacy and wit, that we almost empathise with him, even when he is at his murderous worst. Like Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger, who also blundered into a senseless murder, Freddie feels removed from this world, always searching for the appropriate response to perform in any given situation.

How shall I describe it, this sense of myself as something without weight, without moorings, a floating phantom? Other people seemed to have a density, a thereness, while I lacked…Don’t mistake me…I laughed and whooped and boasted with the best of them – only inside, in that grim, shadowed gallery I call my heart, I stood uneasily, with a hand to my mouth, silent, envious, uncertain.

His voice is contrary and judgemental, yet contains a winning sardonic humour and teasing shrewdness. He rarely acts predictably, lending the narrative a delicious instability and Banville undermines our basic assumptions at every turn.

Rather than simply presenting a first-person account of a psychopath, Banville offers us a character who has committed an evil act, but who doesn’t seem to deserve the label of ‘evil’. The very notion of evil, or badness, vaporises through Banville’s prose, as does the idea of motive. In an amusing segment, Freddie is asked to write out how he planned his crime, and like a good schoolchild wanting to please his superiors, he tries to comply, but the resulting confession is so obviously ridiculous that even the police officers cannot take it seriously.

Freddie has no idea why he killed the housemaid – he has no reason to and up until the exact point where he takes her life, he has no inclination to. ‘I killed her,’ he says, ‘because I could’. The arbitrary nature of his actions and his responses to those actions are what make his narrative so compelling and the scenes detailing the killing are handled with a skill that is breath taking.

I turned then, and saw myself turning as I turned, as I seem to myself to be turning still, as I sometimes imagine I shall be turning always, as if this might be my punishment, my damnation, just this breathless, blurred, eternal turning towards her.

The prose in The Book of Evidence is stunning. I highlighted more passages than I didn’t and the spare, richly eloquent writing is an absolute joy. The smallest details are given weighty significance, the most minor of characters brought vividly to life, and the descriptions of the landscape and the world around Freddie are masterful.

The breeze from the sea was a soft, sea wall of air in the open window of the car, with a hint of smoke in it from the mailboat berthed below me. The flags on the roof of the yacht club shuddered and snapped and a thicket of masts in the harbour swayed and tinkled lie an oriental orchestra.

By the end of this striking book, it becomes clear that this book of evidence, doesn’t relate to a crime, but relates to a life, a life never lived as it should have been. Freddie comes closest to revealing the real evil in his life towards the end of his account when he notes that ‘failure of imagination is my real crime, the one that made the others possible…I could kill her because for me, she was not alive’. His actions were utterly divorced from intent, and it is through this book that he tries to discover that intention.

As a novel about crime and corresponding guilt, The Book of Evidence is up there with the classics. It is darkly compelling, dangerously funny and utterly absorbing. If I read a better book this year, I will be amazed.

Ireland Month Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

36 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I spent most of this review thinking “yes, but what about the housemaid”, and then got to the excerpt where he admits that, for him, she wasn’t alive. That’s so crucial, that admission. Without it, this might be just another admiring portrait of a killer; I’m glad Banville includes it.


  2. This is one of my faves, but it must be st least 30 years since I read it. For a long while in my 20s Banville was my favourite writer. This is a nice reminder to reread this one … I have a signed edition!


  3. High praise indeed, including the Camus comparison! I like morally ambiguous fiction (Highsmith is a doyenne of the genre) though I have understandably no desire to get to know real sociopaths or, indeed, psychopaths!


  4. Oh you so nailed it! Super review and I can see that this is the man’s writing style, regardless the title. “The smallest details are given weighty significance, the most minor of characters brought vividly to life, and the descriptions of the landscape and the world around Freddie are masterful.” He’s like following the person who abruptly does a 90 degree turn and starts a whole new trail. My God, I can’t keep up with him!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review! I’ve been a Banville fan since reading The Sea years ago. I reread Eclipse last year because his recent book, The Singularities, continues the saga of Freddie Montgomery. It’s excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Fran McBookface

Blethering all things books

Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large

'Inside a book is a different world...'


A friendly space for all horror, mystery & speculative fiction lovers

Plucked from the Stacks

book reviews and chatter

The Intrepid Arkansawyer

The Intrepid Angeleno is presently in Arkansas.

Books and Me!

All things Bookish and more!

Lizzie Ross

Reading, writing, dreaming

Book of Secrets

A Book Review Blog

%d bloggers like this: