‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville

The_Book_of_EvidenceUnreliable narrator Freddie Montgomery, sitting in prison awaiting trial for murder, recounts his story of just how he finds himself liable to face life imprisonment in an Irish jail.

From a life of privileged dysfunction to a man in public hiding via many years living abroad, Montgomery, desperate to find the money he so flippantly borrowed, kills not for financial gain but simply because he can. Redolent of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral Tom Ripley, Freddie’s relatively carefree life is about to end for the murder of a young maid. In the wrong place at the wrong time, the young woman walked into the room as the louche narrator is stealing a (not particularly valuable) portrait.

On the run, he hides out in the large but rundown home of Charlie, an old family friend. But with few leads, the police are initially clueless and Freddie’s sojourn is hardly the furtive existence normally associated with being in hiding. It is his self-justification and arrogance that eventually lead to his downfall and the narration he writes to the judge and jury of his future trial.

That that narration maybe unreliable – Montgomery’s own ‘book of evidence’ to the events ­– is moot but irrelevant. What The Book of Evidence is is a wry, intelligent and restrained account of his crime and events leading up to it.

A consummate yet pellucid wordsmith, Banville’s intriguing novel is simultaneously thought-provoking, challenging (the words echolalia, balanic, ataraxic, meniscus and ichor appearing in two short paragraphs as early as page 19), sardonic (Banville references the use of those same words in the next paragraph) and witty.

It does take a little while to get into it, but once past page 19, The Book of Evidence completely draws you in. Shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

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