The Book Of Evidence by John Banville

Minerva, 1990

The Book Of Evidence cover

I bought this book years ago, put it in my to-be-read shelf, where it got hidden. When I rediscovered it recently I thought I’d better give it a go.

The point of view is certainly one I have never encountered before. The tale is narrated as if by a prisoner in the dock, addressing a judge (whom he variously calls m’lud, your honour, your lordship etc) and at times, the jury. This is an unusual literary conceit but otherwise the treatment is actually quite conventional, a first person apologia pro vita sua by the narrator Frederick Montgomery. (This name almost breaks Gene Wolfe’s iron law of writing – never call a character Fred.)

If not quite stream of consciousness the narration still rambles somewhat and jumps backward and forward in time from the events leading up to Montgomery’s incarceration to his present. It eventually transpires that he is on remand and composing his narrative at a table.

Montgomery is less than reliable, however, and the prose, while not leaden – Banville picks his words, especially his verbs, with care (dust sifts down, for example) – is somehow flat. Montgomery’s detachment is curious; he does not seek to deny his crime but, equally, shows little actual remorse for it – a, to my mind, startling lack of affect.

Banville, of course, speckles the text with relatively uncommon words – aboulia, ataraxic, balanic, gleet – but I wasn’t convinced that the Montgomery the book reveals would have employed any of these. He’s more of an imperturbable type than an ataraxic.

While Montgomery’s lack of engagement does have the effect Banville presumably intended, it is too distancing and as a result none of the characters really springs to life. They are merely the backdrop against which Montgomery tells his story.

The pun in the title is also rather arch – Montgomery’s telling of his story in the novel is the case against him, and his book (of evidence) will most likely be thrown at him.

Even more years ago I read Banville’s Dr Copernicus and Kepler. As I recall those, they were much more involving than I found this outing. But then their protagonists were grappling with the mysteries of the Universe. For all Banville’s fine writing, Montgomery isn’t.

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