Book review: Snow by John Banville

Sunday, November 1, 2020 Permalink

I saw Irish author John Banville interviewed on television just over a decade ago. I’m not sure if he spoke about a book in particular or his creative process but I was sufficiently intrigued to borrow his recent release, The Infinities, on my next library visit.

Now I’m fairly obtuse so usually shy away from anything metaphorical and I’m not quite sure I knew what I was getting myself into. But I do recall being enchanted by the book… which is ostensibly about a dying man and his family. Not to mention some meddlesome immortals or gods. In my blissful haze I borrowed his better-known Booker Prize winning The Sea. I wasn’t using Goodreads at the time so my reaction isn’t there but I’m fairly sure (from memory) I barely made it a chapter or two when I put it aside. Its…. weighty slang-ridden prose far too erudite for moi.

Snow by John Banville however, is promoted as crime fiction and the first in a series, so I dove on in. And there’s no doubt Banville’s writing is exquisite.

Book review: Snow by John BanvilleSnow
by John Banville
Series: St. John Strafford #1
on 01/10/2020
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Crime Fiction
ISBN: 0571362680
Pages: 352

Following the discovery of the corpse of a highly respected parish priest at Ballyglass House - the family seat of the aristocratic, secretive Osborne family - Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.

Strafford faces obstruction from all angles, but carries on determinedly in his pursuit of the murderer. However, as the snow continues to fall over this ever-expanding mystery, the people of Ballyglass are equally determined to keep their secrets.

This reminded me of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, albeit set a two or three decades earlier.

There’s quite a bit of reference to the Protestant vs Catholic divide, though of course we know (with the benefit of history) that things get more dire and by the 1980s poor old Sean Duffy is checking under his car for bombs every time he leaves his house.

I very much liked Strafford (like Duffy, a Protestant in a Catholic police force), though tired a little of hearing that his family was of a certain class and that people mispronounced and misspelt his name. Having said that Banville does a great job at conveying Strafford’s calm diligence and sense of dignity, despite everything happening around him.

When he was young and still a trainee in Templemore, he had imagined that as a policeman he would be granted a special kind of knowledge. He would learn things that other people didn’t know, things of life and, far more significantly, things of death, and dying. A foolish expectation, of course – to live was to live, to die was to die. It was what everyone did. What was there for a detective to detect that other people weren’t privy to?

None of this troubled him, or not seriously. He didn’t really know himself, and didn’t care to. His life was a state of peculiar calm, of tranquil equilibrium. His strongest drive was curiously, the simple wish to know, to be let in on what was hidden from others. Everything to him had the aspect of a cipher. Life was a mundane mystery, the clues to the solving of which were strewn all about, concealed or, far more fascinatingly, hidden in plain view, for all to see but for him to recognise.

The dullest object could, for him, flare into sudden significance, could throb in the sudden awareness of itself. There were clues, and he was their detector. pp 85-86

The rest of Banville’s characterisations are also strong. We get a real sense of the haughty but blokey man of the manor Osborne, his young and fragile second wife, and his feisty teenage daughter in particular.

The crime itself is quite shocking and the early part of the novel piqued my interest but things slowed and I wasn’t gripped by the unfolding investigation. The plot and pacing could have been a little tighter – it became a little plodding and the motivation (and backstory) underlying it all was perhaps a little easy to predict.

Interestingly Banville inserts a change of point of view so we hear directly from Father Tom in the past. It’s well done and I think it was important we heard this voice, despite the bad taste it leaves.

Of course Banville’s writing is the star here and is a joy to read.

When there was a lapse like this on the line, if Strafford listened hard he could hear, behind the electronic crackles, a sort of distant warbling. It always fascinated him, this eerie, cacophonous music, and gave him a shiver, too. It was as if the hosts of the dead were singing to him out of the ether. p 42

According to promotional material and Goodreads this is the first in this series. Quite weirdly however Banville includes a prologue that leaps forward a decade. I understood the point of it but moving forward in time so much made me wonder how it would fit with additional books in the series. Would they be set immediately after the case here, or will Strafford be in his mid 40s (with a marriage under his belt) next time we meet?

In short, this is beautifully written and nuanced but the pacing and plot ultimately lagged a little.

Snow by John Banville will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and available from early November 2020.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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