Saturday, March 18


THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE begins with the arrogant and verbose Freddy Montgomery being arrested after (we find out later) an inept attempt to steal an oil painting, which resulted in the death of a young woman.

In the street a little crowd had gathered. How did they know who I was, which court I would be in, the time at which I would appear? When they caught sight of me they gave a cry, a sort of ululant wail of awe and execration that made my skin prickle, I was so confused and frightened I forgot myself and waved - I waved to them! God knows what I thought I was doing. I suppose it was meant as a placatory gesture, an animal sign of submission and retreat, It only made them more furious, of course. They shook their fists, they howled. One or two of them seemed about to break from the rest and fly at me. A woman spat, and called me a dirty bastard, I just stood there, nodding and waving like a clockwork man, with a terrified grin fixed on my face. That was when I realised, for the first time, it was one of theirs I had killed.

They clawed at each other to get a look at me. They shouted abuse, and shook their fists at me, showing their teeth. It was unreal, somehow, frightening yet comic, the sight of them there, milling on the pavement like film extras, young men in cheap raincoats, and women with shopping bags, and one or two silent, grizzled characters who just stood, fixed on me hungrily, haggard with envy. It had rained while I was inside, and now the sun was shining again. I remember the glare of the wet road, and a cloud stealthily disappearing over the rooftops, and a dog skirting the road with a worried look in its eye. Always the incidental things, you see, the little things. Then a guard threw a blanket over my head and bundled me into a squad car. I laughed. There was something irresistibly funny in the way reality, banal as ever, was fulfilling my worst fantasies. I was pushed head-first into the police car and we sped away, the tyres hissing. Hee-haw, hee-haw. In the hot, woolly darkness I wept my fill.

By the way, that blanket. Did they bring it specially, or do they always keep one handy in the boot?


Then the book backtracks to show us how all of this happened. Freddy comes home to Ireland for the first time in 10 years, and visits his mother.

She insisted that I come and look the place over, as she put it. After all, my boy, she said, someday all this will be yours. And she did her throaty cackle. I did not remember her being so easily amused in the past, There was something almost unruly in her laughter, a sort of abandon. I was a little put out by it, I thought it was not seemly. She lit up a cigarette and set off around the house, with the cigarette box and matches clutched in her left claw, and me trailing grimly in her smoking wake. The house was rotting, in places so badly, and so rapidly, that even she was startled. She talked and talked. I nodded dully, gazing at damp walls and sagging floors and mouldering window-frames. In my old room the bed was broken, and there was something growing in the middle of the mattress. The view from the window--trees, a bit of sloping field, the red roof of a barn--was exact and familiar as an hallucination. Here was the cupboard I had built, and at once I had a vision of myself, a small boy with a fierce frown, blunt saw in hand, hacking at a sheet of plywood, and my grieving heart wobbled, as if it were not myself I was remembering, but something like a son, dear and vulnerable, lost to me forever in the depths of my own past.


He also reunites with Anna, one of the women from the earlier excerpt I posted here. She is on her way to becoming a spinster, living alone in her dying father's art-filled house.

Though I tried to put her out of my mind I kept returning to the thought of Anna Behrens. What had happened to her, that she should lock herself away in that drear museum, with only a dying old man for company? But perhaps nothing had happened, perhaps that was it. Perhaps the days just went by, one by one, without a sound, until at last it was too late, and she woke up one morning and found herself stuck fast in the middle of her life.


After the crime, Freddy hides in the house of a family friend, and waits for the police to arrive.

I sat in a chair in the drawing-room, gazing before me, my hands gripping the armrests and my feet placed squarely side by side on the floor. I do not know how long I stayed like that, in that glimmering, grey space. I have an impression of hours passing, but surely that cannot be. There was a smell of cigarettes and stale drink left over from last night. The rain made a soothing noise. I sank into a kind of trance, a waking sleep. I saw myself, as a boy, walking across a wooded hill near Coolgrange. It was in March, I think, one of those blustery, Dutch days with china-blue sky and tumbling, cindery clouds. The trees above me swayed and groaned in the wind. Suddenly there was a great quick rushing noise, and the air darkened, and something like a bird's vast wing crashed down around me, thrashing and whipping. It was a branch that had fallen. I was not hurt, yet I could not move, and stood as if stunned, aghast and shaking. The force and swiftness of the thing had appalled me. It was not fright I felt, but a profound sense of shock at how little my presence had mattered. I might have been no more than a flaw in the air. Ground, branch, wind, sky, world, all these were the precise and necessary co-ordinates of the event. Only I was misplaced, only I had no part to play. And nothing cared. If I had been killed I would have fallen there, face down in the dead leaves, and the day would have gone on as before, as if nothing had happened. For what would have happened would have been nothing, or nothing extraordinary, anyway. Adjustments would have been made. Things would have had to squirm out from under me. A stray ant, perhaps, would explore the bloody chamber of my ear, But the light would have been the same, and the wind would have blown as it had blown, and time's arrow. would not have faltered for an instant in its flight. I was amazed. I never forgot that moment. And now another branch was about to fall, I could hear that same rushing noise above me, and feel that same dark wing descending.


John Banville is particularly good at summarizing characters in just a line or two. For example:

A large, red-faced, sweating man in a striped shirt entered the interrogation room. I recognised in him one of my own kind, the big, short-tempered, heavy-breathing people of the world.


She had the unformed, palely freckled look of a schoolgirl, the dullard of the class, who cries in the dorm at night and is mad on ponies.


However, I'll end with this stunning passage, where Freddy first arrives back in Ireland.

I had expected to arrive in rain, and at Holyhead, indeed, a fine, warm drizzle was falling, but when we got out on the channel the sun broke through again. It was evening. The sea was calm, an oiled, taut meniscus, mauve-tinted and curiously high and curved. From the forward lounge where I sat the prow seemed to rise and rise, as if the whole ship were straining to take to the air. The sky before us was a smear of crimson on the palest of pale blue and silvery green. I held my face up to the calm sea-light, entranced, expectant, grinning like a loon. I confess I was not entirely sober, I had already broken into my allowance of duty-free booze, and the skin at my temples and around my eyes was tightening alarmingly. It was not just the drink, though, that was making me happy, but the tenderness of things, the simple goodness of the world. This sunset, for instance, how lavishly it was laid on, the clouds, the light on the sea, that heartbreaking, blue-green distance, laid on, all of it, as if to console some lost, suffering wayfarer. I have never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws, and other, grimmer skies. I try to imagine it, our true place, off on the far side of the galaxy, whirling and whirling. And the ones who were meant for here, are they out there, baffled and homesick, like us? No, they would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us?