Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Benjamin Black's second
Like the first "Benjamin Black" novel by John Banville (Christine Falls), The Silver Swan is beautifully written, and is fully realized in its details. The characters are interesting and believable, the setting meticulously rendered, and the language evocative. But where Christine Falls had, if anything, too much plot, The Silver Swan doesn't have quite enough. Not to say that nothing happens: there are plenty of incidents along the way as Quirke, the curious pathologist in Dublin's post-World War II days, follows a thread revealed when a college friend asks him not to perform an autopsy on the friend's wife, apparently drowned, probably a suicide. But the incidents don't quite cohere into a story. First, there are some aspects of the plot that are difficult to believe: Not only the many coincidences required to involve practically Quirke's whole family in the story, but also specific plot points--beginning with that autopsy, which Quirke performs secretly, without informing the husband. I'm no expert, but it seems that an autopsy would, be a bit difficult to conceal from a family member, and in any case, the ease with which Quirke's deception succeeds is never explained. There is also a lot of very lurid material here, but all of it joyless. And the key figure in that part of the book, a Viennese-Indian guru of sorts, remains so opaque that his motivations are difficult to grasp. Black-Banville also departs from his hero's point of view so often that we hardly know what Quirke has discovered, or even what he knows of the "true" events at the end of the book. Black-Banville's narrator is more godlike than is usual in the best crime novels, which frequently depend on the limitation of point of view to draw the reader into the police procedure, the detective's investigation, or whatever thread leads through the maze of motivations and events. Though the ending of the book does include surprises, we know a bit too much as we go along for us to bother too much about where we are going to end up, especially given the tawdriness of much of the story. I was reminded of Graham Greene's early "entertainments," particularly by one of the most oddly engaging characters, the self-styled "spiv" Leslie Swan, a slimeball of the first order. His victims are perhaps less innocent than some of those in those early Greene books, and the moral less clear. Like those books, too, Black-Banville's is mostly atmosphere, something that Banville is, of course, known for in his mainstream novels, and the ambience is quite engaging and interesting. But, for me, the atmosphere is not quite enough to hold together a story whose various elements are linked by strands of coincedence, but are at the same time never quite cohere into a whole story.