Monday, July 12, 2010

Benjamin Black's "The Silver Swan": Book Review

"The world has fallen asunder" in Dublin still paralyzed. Many readers appear to be disappointed by this follow-up, but I liked it much better. The only drawback here is the reliance on coincidence, but this in Joyce's city where everyone knows everyone's business may be less of a fault than I found the set-up for Quirke's début. Here's why.

I reviewed recently the first installment of John Banville's sideline from his more philosophical novels. Quirke returns as an driven, yet awkward, amateur investigator into another series of murders in middle-class 1950s Dublin. The pace here quickens from "Christine Falls," which I found murky and plodding. The characters here gain energy, and their depth expands and sinks into the pages more satisfactorily, and disturbingly. Mal and Rose and of course Phoebe all join Quirke, along with closer attention to Inspector Hackett. Sinclair, Q's assistant coroner, lurks intriguingly in the background, but I'd like to learn more about him.

Similar to Jack Taylor's battle with the bottle in Ken Bruen's "Galway noir" series of mysteries, Quirke finds himself starting this narrative sober and haunted. The raffish Leslie, the creepy Hakkim Kreutz (I sense a Nazi "crooked cross" buried in this name), the elusive Kate, and thuggish Billy Hunt all surround the doomed Silver Swan, Deirdre-Laura, in her attempts to enter a more exotic and daring realm of the body and imagination than that afforded her by her mundane Irish prospects. The author moves from one character to another, and this kaleidoscopic presentation allows greater detail and variety than the monochromatic and to me more monotonous prequel.

As with my reviews of most of Banville's fiction, I always highlight a chosen passage. Banville here reaches his mark more readily as Black, closer to his erudite and ambitious character studies under his given name. Here's two excerpts. Rose comes on to Quirke, and he hesitates as his daughter watches. "Rose took a cigarette, and he held the lighter for her and she leaned forward, touching her fingertips to the back of his hand. When she lifted the cigarette from her lips it was stained with lipstick. He thought how often this little scene had been repeated: the leaning forward, the quick, wry, upwards glance, the touch of her fingers on his skin, the white paper suddenly, vividly stained. She had asked him to love her, to stay with her." (141) Quirke elsewhere has noted that the touch of man's fingers to another man's can happen also sharing a light; one of the only permissible times.

Quirke later comes upon a crime scene. The plot has been cleverly choreographed, and the payoff's better than in "Christine Falls." The author plays fair with you, hinting at all that transpires, but unless you're smarter than Quirke or most any mystery writer, chances are you will be entertained by how rapidly Banville-Black has shuffled the pea under the shell before your eyes. The climactic scenes crackle with intensity and they'd make a great film, so visually are they described.

"Over every scene of violent death Quirke had attended in the course of his career there had hung a particular kind of silence, the kind that falls after the last echoes of a great outcry had faded. There was shock in it, of course, and awe and outrage, the sense of many hands lifted quickly to many mouths, but something else as well, a kind of gleefulness, a kind of startled, happy, unable-to-believe-its-luckness. Things, Quirke reflected, even inanimate things, it seemed, love a killing." (248-49)

As Deirdre-Laura puts it on her death-day, "The world has fallen asunder." The author takes you into her mind, drugged and erotic, and as with other characters, you pass from Dublin's stilted shabby-chic facades into fevered lust, hatred, or inarticulate longing. The author here excels at pitting the real-life dullness of his dramatis personae against their dreams of escape, as if Joyce's "Dubliners" still were paralyzed in post-war Ireland, still struggling to break free of the city.

But, they cannot. Irish complacency shrouds this novel. As American Rose critiques: "The way you go about in a cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding that things should change or be fixed or made new." (256) Quirke, in a magnificent long single paragraph of an epilogue, achieves the level of Banville's best creations, and I look forward to another encounter with him and his ineradicable meddling.

P.S. On Amazon I've since recently reviewed the third installment, "Elegy for April." "Swan" and "Christine Falls" I've earlier posted on over there but I only found I forgot to post "Swan" here thanks to my finding yesterday Sheila O'Malley's thorough and insightful "Swan" review at her own great site,"The Sheila Variations."

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