By John Banville.
220 pages
New York: Vintage Books, 2001 (from the 1989 original).
ISBN# 0-375-72523-7

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2003

Caution: Spoilers. I normally try to write my comments without major plot spoilers, but this book is such that I just couldn’t avoid it and still say what I wanted to say. So, if you haven’t read the book yet, be warned what is below will reveal key elements of the plot. You might want to read the book first!

Freddie Montgomery has committed murder. The novel, all first person narration, is his own account of the relevant events as he sees them. Freddie believes he must plead guilty of first degree murder but writes this book of evidence not to explain his crime, but his LIFE.

His ‘relevant’ events range over much of his life. The more immediate details leading to the murder are that Freddie, living on a Mediterranean island with his wife and young son, borrowed money from some sleazy drug-traffic fellows. He can’t repay and they threaten serious harm to Freddie. He has to go back to his home in Ireland, where he hasn’t been in ten years, to seek the money, and leaves his wife and son as hostages.

Freddie can’t get the money and resolves to steal a valuable painting from a family he’s known for years. The robbery goes bad and he ends up trying to escape, but has the maid in the car with him. He brutally murders her with a hammer. He surely panics as he attempts to escape. Witnesses have seen him. The maid screams and even tries to stop him from driving. But even after he hits her a couple of times and subdues her, he keeps on beating her and eventually abandons her in a ditch when she was still alive – albeit, barely so.

He may well have gotten off with a manslaughter charge, as his lawyer suggests, but Freddie is moved to plead guilty of murder in the first degree.

His decision is puzzling if viewed exclusively from the point of view of his crime. But as he tells us, the evidence he gives is of his LIFE not his CRIME. He is guilty in the first degree of living a bad life. This is the crux of Banville’s novel.

What is this great evil of his life? Freddie comes closest to revealing this in the last few pages where we read:

This is the worst, the essential sin, I think, one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never imagined her vividly enough, that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live. Yes, that failure of imagination is my real crime, the one that made the others possible. What I told that policeman is true – I killed her because I could kill her, and I could kill her because for me she was not alive. And so my task now is to bring her back to life.

His grave “sin” is not the murder, but of not allowing others to live for him. Thus killing them or otherwise badly treating people does not matter.

But why should it? Why does Freddie (or Banville) embrace the Christian or Kantian ethic (is there really a difference)? This we don’t know. It is merely an asserted value we are seemingly supposed to embrace.

In this sense Banville’s novel fails for me. Freddie’s murder of the maid is horrible, but what is horrible is her death in this undeserved manner, the gross violation of social living, it is not Freddie’s inability to give her “life” and meaning for him. It is the act, not the intention or occasion which I find appalling.

John Banville is a masterful writer. Freddie Montgomery lives for the reader. He is no typical person. Rather he is an outsider, a stranger to the ways and values of most people. But under Banville’s skill, Freddie Montgomery lives in his book of evidence.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett