Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

If I had to choose one word to describe John Banville‘s latest crime novel it would be this: fun.

April in Spain is historical crime at its best, the kind of story you can get lost in and enjoy to the full even if the crime itself is a bit of a let down.

Postwar tale

This evocative postwar tale stars Dublin pathologist Quirke, whom we have met in earlier novels published under Banville’s pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and Detective St. John Strafford who made his first appearance in last year’s Snow. (Note, you don’t need to be familiar with those novels, but it’s great fun for readers who are.)

It’s set in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, and is famous for its forests, beaches, sparkling wine and seafood. Quirke is holidaying here somewhat reluctantly (he finds it difficult to relax) thanks to his wife, Evelyn, a straight-talking Austrian psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust, having arranged it all.

‘Northern Spain is southern Ireland,’ she said. ‘It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.’

One evening, enjoying a quiet drink in a bar in the Old Town, Quirke hears an Irish accent and wonders if he might know the woman to whom it belongs, but she’s sitting behind him and he can’t see her properly. When he does finally run into her under different circumstances a few days later he realises he does know her — or at least he thinks he does. The problem is she’s supposed to be dead, having been murdered by her brother following a sex scandal involving one of Ireland’s most distinguished political families many years earlier.

Quirke being Quirke can’t ignore the possibility that April Latimer, now going by the name Angela Lawless (note the same initials), is still alive, but how to prove it? That’s where Detective Strafford comes into the picture. He arrives in Spain, accompanied by Quirke’s adult daughter who was friends with April and will be able to help identify her.

Villain in the shadows

But lurking in the shadows is another visitor to San Sebastián with a keen interest in April Latimer. His name is Terry Tice and he’s an Irish-born East End gangster cut from a similar cloth to Reggie Kray.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe like wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid.

The narrative eventually brings all these characters together in a surprising end, although it’s a slim premise for a crime novel. The strength of April in Spain is really the way in which Banville tells his story and builds suspense via his beautifully crafted prose. I love how he comes at everything with a completely original eye, inventing his own metaphors and creating unique similies. It’s the kind of writing that dazzles without showing off and is utterly enjoyable to read.

A flustered woman, for instance, is described as being akin to a “bird floundering in a net as colourless as air”. An old guy behind the desk in a pub has “the look of a walrus, with fat shoulders and a sloped back and a tired moustache drooping at the tips”. A man becomes anxious so that the “collar of his shirt seems all of a sudden two or three sizes too small for him”, while a worried woman feels “like a swimmer on a high diving board whose nerve had failed”.

I particularly liked this description of something as simple as dust:

She blew the dust from the lid — how lovely dust could be, when it lay like that, like a smooth coating of fur, dull-mauve and almost too soft to touch.

He paints such delicious pictures with words that the story really comes alive in your mind.

San Sebastián travel diary

The first part of the book, as Quirke settles into holiday mode, is a delight. I went to San Sebastián in 2018 and it remains one of the most memorable (and beautiful) European destinations I’ve ever visited. I recognised so much of Banville’s descriptions, including his references to the local fizzy white wine known as txakoli — “That was one word Quirke was quick to learn how to pronounce: tchacholy” —  and the delicious skewered snacks known as pintxos, which Quirke describes as (rather unkindly) “a slightly fancier version of the dull old sandwich. He was against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special”.

In move to protect his “big Irish head”, Quirke is even dragged to the very same hat shop I bought a Panama hat in:

They found a hat shop not far from the hotel. It was called Casa Ponsol. A sign over the door announced with a proud flourish that it had been founded in 1838. It might have been an annexe to the Londres [his hotel]. Quirke felt intimidated.

The mood of the story isn’t as dark as you might expect. The banter between Quirke and his wife is particularly funny (the push and pull of their relationship is brilliantly evoked). And there’s a vein of gentle humour, often mocking, running throughout. Here’s an example. Quirke and Evelyn buy oysters in the local fish market but when they get back to their hotel room they realise they have nothing to open them with.

Now she came out of the bathroom. ‘Here is a nail scissors,’ she said. ‘That will do to open them with.’ And that was how Quirke ended up in hospital.

And here’s how Terry Tice describes his impression of the tourists he sees on the beach:

People looked so stupid here, the tourists especially, the fat women as pale as suet, the men with the cuffs of their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads to ward off the sun. Then there were the he-men, flexing their muscles, as if they all thought they were Johnny Weissmuller. As for swimming, that really was for chumps. Imagine floundering around up to your neck out there, with them all screaming around you, and throwing water in each other’s faces, or standing with their hands on their hips and that faraway look on their faces that told you they were taking a piss.

I suspect diehard readers of the crime genre might find this novel a little disappointing. But what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in terrific characters — the people in this book are brilliant creations, each one distinct and well rounded, and Terry Tice is dastardly enough to become one of those strange evil villains you love to hate.

Yes, April in Spain is great fun. More, please.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Locked room mystery

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:

He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’

What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

An obvious motive

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Ancient Light’ by John Banville

Ancient-light

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Love, grief and memory are common themes in John Banville’s work, and his latest novel, Ancient Light, is no exception.

The story has two narrative threads spooling from the one narrator: a current storyline in which aging stage actor Alexander Cleave is given a rare movie role starring opposite a bright young thing, and a second storyline in which he remembers his first unlikely love affair as a teenage boy in 1950s Ireland.

Both narratives twist and turn around one another, allowing the past to inform the present, but also reminding Alexander of two tragic losses in his life: that of his first lover and that of his adult daughter’s suicide 10 years before.

A killer first sentence

The book opens with a rather striking first line:

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.

Alexander was 15 and Mrs Gray was 35. Their illicit — and illegal — affair commenced on a metal-framed camp bed — “or it might have been a horsehair mattress thrown on the floor” — set up in the laundry room and then proceeded in all manner of uncomfortable places: the back seat of Mrs Gray’s car, a derelict house in the woods and the floor of the laundry room after the bed mysteriously disappears.

This tantalising storyline recalled in snippets and moments of self-doubt — “Images from the past crowd my head and I cannot tell if they are memories or inventions” — explores how the young Alexander was besotted with his older lover. And it shows, in painstaking detail, how the pair risked condemnation, ruination and, worst of all in Roman Catholic Ireland, damnation for their sordid behaviour.

Lots of questions to think about

A book of this nature throws up all kinds of questions for the reader — particularly when you consider recent news stories in which grown men have gone on the run with teenage lovers and then been thrown in prison for their actions.

This story might be about an older woman and her teenage lover, but does this make it any less of a crime? What was Mrs Gray doing sleeping with a schoolboy? And because Alex was, quite frankly, a randy young male, does this make their sexual liaisons more acceptable?

Of course, Ancient Light only ever tells Alexander’s side of the story — and even then we are never quite sure how much of it is reliable, a point that he labours constantly. The reader, however, will come to their own conclusions. Me? I figured Mrs Gray was lonely, bored and looking for a frisson of excitement in her dull 1950s small town life as a homemaker and mother (this does not make it right), and Alexander, initially thrilled by the sex, was clearly not mature enough to handle the complexity of an adult relationship. He struggled with his emotions, often rowing with Mrs Gray or sulking because she behaved in ways he didn’t expect. She fulfilled a need — and not just a sexual one.

Lovely writing, perfect voice

As ever with a John Banville novel, the writing is rather lovely, ripe with meaning and exquisite sentences. The voice of Alexander — a heady mix of pomposity, runaway ego and heartfelt regret and sadness — is captured so expertly that I did not know whether I loved or loathed him.

Occasionally alarming, often tender and moving, this is a novel of remarkable insight. And as a multi-layered confessional, looking back on a life marked by an aching sense of loss, it is a pretty damn fine one.

Ancient Light won the 2012 Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It is the final novel in the trilogy formed by Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), neither of which I have read, an oversight I plan to rectify soon.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sea’ by John Banville

TheSea

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 200 pages; 2005.

When John Banville won last year’s Booker Prize many were surprised. Critics, from the established media and the blogosphere alike, seemed united in their distaste for this novel, deeming it unworthy (and in some cases unreadable) for the UK’s most prestigious literary award.

Despite being a longtime admirer of John Banville’s work (although it had been about a decade since I’d last read any of his fiction), I was reluctant to try The Sea. I did not want to have my image of his work destroyed. I did not want to discover that the critics were right and I was wrong. And so my hardcover edition sat on the shelf unread for so long that it was eclipsed by the paperback release and I was forced to read it before the paperback reviews put me off it forever.

Now I am wondering why I waited so long, because The Sea is a remarkable novel — in all senses of the word.

It tells the story of Max Morden, a retired art historian, who takes a trip to the seaside village (where he once spent a childhood holiday) to come to terms with the “delicate business of being the survivor” after the death of his beloved wife. The novel, written stream of consciousness style, charts Max’s interior monologue, his recollections of the past colliding with the awkwardness of his present day grief.

Banville, a master of narrative, entwines several stories into one seamless, smoothly polished piece of fiction. The reader does not  even notice the joins between Max’s divergent memories: his wife (meeting, falling in love, making a life together) and a childhood vacation spent at his current seaside resort, where he was enchanted by the Grace family, and fell in love, first, with the mother Mrs Grace and was then seduced by the daughter, the beguiling and forthright Chloe.

Colliding with his remembrance of things past is his present reality: arguing with his strong-willed daughter who comes to visit; putting up with other house guests, such as Colonel Blunden who “overplays the part of an old soldier”, and the stern but friendly landlady Miss Vavasour; and finding things for himself to do, even if it means getting falling-over drunk in the local pub.

Just as the reader begins to wonder whether there is any point to these meandering narratives, Banville does what he does best: he allows these seemingly unrelated stories to join forces. This delivers a shocking blow, so that the reader suddenly realises that Max’s grief is two-fold: he is escaping from a recent loss but also coming to terms with a devastating incident from his childhood that has shaped much of his long life.

For me, the joy of reading a Banville book is knowing that you are in the hands of a master craftsman. He writes sentences like jewellers craft necklaces, carefully threading gems to catch your eye and take your breath away. He uses double-barrel adjectives (spit-smeared ball, bat-squeaks of pretend, dull-apple shade of the underside of a leaf) in unexpected ways, re-inventing language so that there’s not a cliche in sight. And he writes beautiful, lyrical descriptions that are distinctive and mesmerising without being pretentious, such as this:

A steep-slanted flash of sunlight fell across the beach, turning the sand above the waterline bone-white, and a white seabird, dazzling against the wall of cloud, flew up on sickle wings and turned with a soundless snap and plunged itself, a shutting chevron, into the sea’s unruly back.

I will be the first to confess that Banville may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I appreciate his refusal to stick to conventions, to experiment with language and to explore so eloquently and with such clarity what goes on in people’s hearts and minds – the “grim gift for seeing people’s souls” as Don DeLillo described it.

If you are after something with a straight-forward narrative and a conventional plot, The Sea is not for you, but if you enjoy stylised fiction revolving around deep themes – love, loss, identity and remembrance – and revel in the use of sublime language, then I suspect you will be just as enthralled by this novel as I was.