Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of the 2005 Man Booker winning novelist John Banville, under which he has begun a series of crime novels set in Dublin in the 1950s . These novels feature a rather beleagured protagonist, a pathologist called Quirke with his share of midlife crises - a struggle with alcoholism, the loss of the only woman he has ever really loved, and his increasingly fractious relationship with his estranged daughter.

In The Silver Swan, second in the series, the husband of an apparent suicide victim approaches Quirke , asking that a post mortem not be conducted on her body. Quirke is drawn into the case first by personal obligation, and then his own curiosity. Despite finding evidence to the contrary, Quirke misleads the coroner into concluding that the woman may have accidentally drowned. But with the case now seemingly closed, he feels compelled to begin investigating the circumstances leading to the woman's death.

The book now takes on an interesting structure - it alternates between parallel narratives, one, folowing Quirke's investigation; the other, replaying the life of the dead woman herself, right upto her death.

This is a well written, if bleak, book - less about the solving of a crime, than it is a study of the weaknesses and compulsions that drive its central characters.There is a feeling of each character being caught up in forces they can neither fully comprehend nor control. Deirdre Hunt, the dead woman, tries to escape poverty and an abusive father by marrying the much older Billy Hunt. But she needs more and soon enough, she finds herself drawn to an exotic spiritual healer, and then into an affair with the dashing but clearly opportunistic Leslie White, from whom the title of this book derives. The two begin a business venture that seems headed for success, until she realizes she has been used. Quirke struggles to befriend the daughter he has never acknowledged till a few years ago, only to find her begin a relationship with White. He himself begins an affair with White's wife even as he wonders if she may in fact have precipitated Deirdre's death.

Banville keeps his characters' frailties in keen, unrelenting focus. The gloom pervading the Dublin he describes stays overhead through the book as well, as Quirke fumbles towards closure in this case, even as he dreads what he will find. More than one character is portrayed as struggling with darker, or more repressed, aspects of their personality. Here's Quirke, for instance, veteran of several unsuccessful relationships, uneasy over his attraction for Mrs White;

"...For there was another version of him, a personality within a personality, malcontent, vindictive, ever ready to provoke, to which he gave the name 'Carricklea'. Often he found himself standing back, seemingly helpless to intervene, as this other he inside him set about fomenting some new enormity. Carricklea could not be doing with mere happiness or the hint of it. Carricklea had to poke a stick into the eye of this fine, innocent, blue-and-gold summer evening that Quirke was spending by the sea in the company of a handsome and probably available woman."

This is not a book for people who like their 'whodunits' neatly solved and wrapped up in the conventional sense; at the close of this book, the case remains unsolved in one narrative, even as its unexpected solution is revealed in the second. This is also not a book for people who like their endings happy, or at least definite - the book closes in a way reminiscent of those freeze-frame photographs of people caught mid-stride.

Read it for its gripping prose, its dark yet compelling portrayal of obsessive love, deceit and the destruction that must inevitably follow.

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