Archive for March 4, 2009

Whenever someone crosses over into a new genre I always think about the Alan Jackson song Gone Country that tells the story of failed folk and pop singers trying to jump on the Country Music bandwagon of the 1990s. 

John Banville is a very successful writer winning the Man Booker in 2005 and I wonder why he has tried to cross over and write crime fiction. The biography of Banville in the Guardian here calls him a writer “who values language above plot, suspense, pace and drama…” and I thought he would have steered well clear of a genre where plot and suspense are paramount. 

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black [aka John Banville] was a book sent to me for review by those kind people at Picador USA. But I feel I have to give my honest opinion while trying to avoid the smart aleck approach to reviewing. 

The novel is set in 1950s Dublin two years after the events of Christine Falls [Black’s first venture into crime fiction], Quirke the irascible but now sober pathologist is approached by Billy Hunt, an acquaintance from his college days, who asks him to cover up his wife Deirdre’s apparent suicide. Quirke does this and then begins to probe into the circumstances of Deirdre Hunt alias Laura Swan’s death. The story is told in two parts as we follow Quirke and his newly acknowledged daughter Phoebe in the present and Deirdre/Laura in a back story that explains how she set up the beauty salon The Silver Swan and tells the  sad story of her abusive relationships. 

To briefly paraphrase the plot Deirdre sleeps with Leslie, who is married to Kate, who sleeps with Quirke, who has a daughter Phoebe, who sleeps with Leslie and possibly  this is obviously what the Baltimore Sun calls “an even better infrastructure”. 
The New York Times Book Review mentions “the sinuous prose, subtle eroticism” and the Baltimore Sun refers to “his luminous prose”. I could go on quoting more of all this admiration but in my opinion the erotic content in this novel is about as subtle as a bash in the *******  with a hurley. 

He would bite her lips until they bled, or twist her arm behind her back and make her gasp, and once when he could not manage to do anything and she laughed it off and said it did not matter , instead of being grateful for her understanding he smacked her across the face, hard, so that her head flew back and banged off the headboard and she saw stars.

I suppose parts of this book were well written, it was Banville after all, but the plot was flimsily obvious and the mostly odious characters cliched and dull. I did not enjoy reading The Silver Swan because strangely for something Irish it was not much fun. 

The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth. Money is necessary to pay the dentist’s bills.
[John Banville: The Guardian]