The Book of Evidence | Critical Review by James Sattler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of The Book of Evidence.
This section contains 1,094 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by James Sattler

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Evidence, in Bloomsbury Review, May/June, 1990, pp. 2-3.

In the following review, Sattler asserts that The Book of Evidence is about the disintegration of its protagonist Freddie Montgomery.

"Well, Well, That's the advantage of jail, one has the time and leisure really to get to the heart of things," says Freddie Montgomery at one point during his confession of murder which comprises The Book of Evidence. Through this sometimes seemingly random rambling, characterized by minute expansion on a relatively simple string of events, emerges the substance of Freddie's life.

Freddie, a thirty-eight-year-old husband, father, failed son, and onetime scientist, travels aimlessly, never losing a sense of alienation. He imagines that a cosmic mistake placed humans on the earth and put the real earthlings somewhere else: "No, they would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us?" While vacationing on an island in the Mediterranean he borrows money from the "wrong people" and must return home to Ireland to try to get the money from his widowed mother. His wife and daughter are left behind under the watchful eyes of the local crime organization.

Freddie finds little comfort or hope of assistance at home, with his mother fed up with his profligacy. A row with her, sparked by the absence of paintings he thought might be of value, sends him wandering to the house of an old acquaintance. To Freddie's dismay, he finds that the paintings were sold to the friend who, in turn, sold them again. While visiting, he becomes obsessed with the woman in the seventeenth-century Dutch painting Portrait of a Woman with Gloves.

Freddie returns to steal the painting, only to be interrupted by a servant girl whom he abducts along with the painting. In a petulant rage he brutally murders the servant girl with a hammer. After a short time undercover, he is jailed and begins his confession.

Evoking comparisons to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Camus' The Stranger, and even some of Beckett's early fiction, Banville's novel is an existential portrait that maps an internal landscape through the narrator's perceptions and reactions to the external, looking at seemingly unimportant details, giving every event equal weight no matter how mundane or extraordinary.

"I only wish to explain my motives, I mean the deepest ones, if such a thing is possible," Freddie says. With a stunning precision of expression Banville exposes the reality beneath Freddie's actions. What seems like merely pricking the surface often inundates the reader with what has been festering below.

Unaware of any vaginal connotations, Freddie can't explain his pronounced aversion to moustaches and disguises his latent homosexuality in homophobia. Once home, he spends time in a bar frequented by homosexuals but denies any sexual interest, and his relationship with Charlie, an old friend of the family who later hides him, seems purposefully ambiguous. After recalling childhood events—having to wait outside while his father visited his mistress—Freddie dismisses the idea of Oedipal feelings, yet there is always an undercurrent of hate for his father.

Freddie's relationships with women are less than satisfying. His intimacy with Daphne, who becomes his wife, begins only with the break-up of her relationship with her roommate Anne. His mother dies while he's in jail, leaving behind a will that disinherited him and replaced him with the stable girl long before the murder. The only sympathetic woman from whom Freddie gets unconditional affection is a total stranger he meets while in hiding. He refers to her only as Foxey, because of her red hair:

She trusted me. She smelled the blood and the horror and did not recoil, but opened herself like a flower and let me rest in her for a moment, my heart shaking, as we exchanged our wordless secret.

Fulfillment of simple, childish wants makes the greatest impression on Freddie. In a self-indulgent trip to the hardware store he buys a hammer, the murder weapon, to gratify the deprived child he once was. After the murder he yearns to be caught and even becomes upset at having to wait for the police to find him:

The least I had expected from the enormities of which I was guilty was that they would change my life, that they would make things happen, however awful, that there would be a constant succession of heart-stopping events, of alarms and sudden frights and hairbreadth escapes.

Finally, he revels in being brought before some authority: "From now on I would be watched over, I would be tended and fed and listened to, like a big dangerous baby." He enjoys being handcuffed, and although he gets offended when he doesn't receive the attention he thinks he deserves, Freddie finally seems satisfied under the paternal authority of the police.

"Now and then I am afforded a glimpse into what seems a new world, but which I realise has been there all along, without my noticing." Throughout the monologue, Freddie evinces a new sense of consciousness to which he seems to have been boosted through his actions and his reflections on them. But he can find little consolation because he feels he's spent a life walking past doorways never daring to enter; now he is an explorer "glimpsing a new continent from a sinking ship."

Through razor sharp observations and scintillating prose, Banville creates a voice true to its pathology. American readers might experience a slight feeling of distance from the voice because it is not always the English of America, but the difference can be appreciated as the subtle flavor of a slightly different culture. And although Freddie's obsession with the woman in the painting seems less convincing and more of a device than his other impulses, it is still effective as an indication of the extent to which Freddie is losing touch with reality.

In explaining what he thinks are his motives, Freddie reveals the real forces at work, conditions such that a man functioning relatively acceptably in the world can commit murder without hesitation. The reader must confront the potential damage resulting from emotional disorder and the fallacy of functioning normally as any measure of mental health.

Freddie muses about his future: "By the way, what an odd formulation that is: to get life. Words so rarely mean what they mean." So it is with Banville's story but so much the better when an artist can convey what isn't or can't be expressed. The evidence of the title is not of the murder of the servant girl but of the gradual, lifelong disintegration of the being that was Freddie.

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This section contains 1,094 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Wendy Lesser