Reading Ireland Month + 4 Days/Begorrathon: The Book of Evidence

So, I failed to finish this in March, but I’ve finished it now – John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, which I think won a prize or was at least short-listed.   It should not have taken long, it’s only 220 pages long, but it is fairly dense prose – the rambling memoir of a man in prison, how he got there and bits of the rest of his life, too.   He is referred to as an unreliable narrator, but aside from not seeming remotely like a scientist, I’m not sure what was unreliable, besides himself as a person.    He apparently quit his job and has been living for years on Mediterranean islands with his wife and son.   How he could afford this, I’m not sure unless it was money left to him in his father’s will.   Maybe he says and I’ve forgotten because I read the beginning a month ago.   It was hard to get into.

But eventually, I did, which is why I finished it.   Freddie Montgomery gets himself into trouble blackmailing some criminal who gets the money from bigger criminals who don’t take kindly to Freddie’s inability to repay.   Why he couldn’t have seen this coming and blown the island beforehand is all part of Freddie’s character which seems to be just sort of vaguely aware of things including himself.   He’s just drifting without purpose.   So, he ditches his wife and kid and goes home to Ireland where he discovers his near broke mother has sold the paintings that he wanted to sell.   He goes to the home of the friends they were sold to.  The daughter of whom he sort of had a relationship with in California.   While there he is captivated by a Dutch master, of a woman with gloves.   It may have looked like this:


Yeah, doesn’t do anything for me either.   But he, after some delay stiffing a cab driver, twice, and his elderly mother, decides to buy some tools and steal the painting.   Although it’s never really clear if he actually decides to do this or he just happens to do it, not really knowing what he’s going to do.   He has almost no money at this point, which just shows how completely vague he is – he’s been in Ireland a few days and is down to five pounds and yet he has no plans to try to get a job, not even any thoughts about getting money beyond the occasional glance at easily pocketable knickknacks in the Behrens’ house.   Which he doesn’t steal.   He takes this painting which is too large to wrap, barely fits in the crummy car he rented and will be impossible to unload.   He then in the same unthought-through fashion kills a maid from the house.   If some criminals do actually operate in this I have no idea what I’m doing manner, it would explain some things we read in the news, but it’s hard to believe anyone operates so completely without actual thinking unless under the influence of drugs, which apparently he isn’t.   Or severely mentally ill, which he probably is.

I went looking for someone else’s ideas on why he’s unreliable and found a piece by someone named Bruce Bawer that speculates that he’s actually a homosexual and repressing this has made him essentially lose his marbles.  Possible, I guess.   There does seem to be some indications that way.  Whether repressing this would have this result, I think unlikely.  After all, homosexuals have been for decades repressing these feelings because of social pressure and don’t really seem to have increased the murder rate that I know of.   The man could be disturbed and a repressed homosexual without the one thing being the cause of the other.


It’s a long portrait of a pretty completely repellent human being.   If Freddie has any redeeming features, I don’t know what they are.  No one, not even himself, is really real to him and I suppose that has to serve as an excuse for him.   He doesn’t treat anyone well and yet is outraged over the smallest slights.   He expects people such as his mother, to welcome him home, though he took all the money and left her without a cent, never brought her grandchild for a visit, he expects the treatment of the prodigal son, but is quite put out when there is no fatted calf to kill for him.   The only moment of genuine feeling for something outside himself seems to be for this painting that he steals, but that ends in much the same way as every other thing in his life – he dumps it by the side of the road.

And this is why I have this blog.   Is this a good book?   It’s well written.   Is it worth while spending time with Freddie (whose name I couldn’t remember for most of the book)?  I certainly couldn’t just give it a number of stars and leave it at that.  It seems to me the 20th century became obsessed with evil, immorality and amorality and examined them and other repellent characteristics ad nauseum and yet never learned anything from it.    Only the first quarter of this review is readable, but it is put so well I’m going to link to it anyway:

“…and it is in the course of this theft, planned and executed as though the thief had never heard of witnesses…”

Yep.   He’s so out of touch with reality that his actions will not only inevitably lead to incarceration, even if they didn’t they will in no way help him with his problems.    At one point, he skims a plate of his only remaining friend into a lake from an upstairs window.   This is emblematic of everything he does in the book:  pointless and he doesn’t know why he does it.

Almost forgot, I want to thank 746books along with Niall at The Fluff is Raging for hosting this event.   Despite my lackluster participation, I was glad to find this and hope they do it again next year.

2 thoughts on “Reading Ireland Month + 4 Days/Begorrathon: The Book of Evidence”

  1. “It seems to me the 20th century became obsessed with evil, immorality and amorality and examined them and other repellent characteristics ad nauseum and yet never learned anything from it.”

    Yes! That’s exactly it! Reading it can not only be painful, but irritating. I always feel like I’m weeding through garbage to find the few bright flowers (ooops, did I say that? 😉 )

    In any case, I enjoyed your review!

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