Snow by John Banville

John Banville’s Snow was resplendent at number one best seller in the airport bookstore. At the time, I hardly noticed, since I was immediately and irresistibly attracted to the author’s name, knowing that whatever the subject, the writing would be exquisite. It is.

Snow is a novel that initially reminded me of a Gothic fantasy such as Gormenghast. Larger than life, or perhaps smaller than reality characters wander in and out of a plot, each displaying their own brand of quirkiness, their own brand of learned psychological deformity that in everyday circumstances we might consider normality. But under the soft-focus gaze of inspector Strafford – that’s Strafford with an ‘r’, by the way, not Stafford – they each seem to magnify into the unwanted status of potential suspect.

By now you will have gathered that Snow is a whodunit, or a murder mystery, as they are sometimes called. The book opens with Strafford’s arrival at a Protestant, somewhat less than stately home in county Wexford, Ireland, where a Catholic priest has been murdered. The circumstances are particularly gruesome.

No one, it has to be said, seems particularly surprised or even bothered, until surfaces are scratched. And so, Strafford sets about solving the crime. We are in the 1950s and religious divisions still characterize the culture and politics of life in this young republic. It’s Christmas or thereabouts and it’s snowing. Hence the title. The snow does contribute to the plot, by the way.

Strafford’s style is laid-back in the extreme. He tends to offer a little, waiting for those he questions to hang themselves on the rope he figuratively offers. Some do, some don’t, all non-definitively. To John Banville’s credit, it was sometime before I realized that I was reading what amounted to genre fiction. So beautiful was the style, so poignant were the observations of character and particularly of place that I began to drift with the snow, only gently realizing that these characters gradually were morphing into the stereotypes needed to feed the plot.

As with any whodunit, the plot is probably everything, though I must admit when I read such work, I really could not care less who might have done it because, as Tom Stoppard pointed out in The Real Inspector Hound, or the stage adaptation of the Mousetrap repeated, it could have been any of them. We know it will be one of the assembled characters, because for a writer to introduce a stranger at the end of a tale as the culprit might just get too close to reality to be called the make-believe of genre, despite its often-overdone realism.

What constitutes plot will not be revealed here. Neither will this review describe characters because, as is so often the case with genre fiction, quirks of character or behaviour feed the all-important plot. Suffice it to say that Strafford solves the mystery and identifies a culprit who, as it turns out, probably wasn’t the murderer.

Three quarters of the way in and still engaged with the scenario in the 1950s, however, John Banville jumps back ten years and introduces a section in a completely new style, written from a very point of view, a perspective that has not been suggested previously. When completed, it is immediately obvious that all of this could have been accomplished via allusions in the dialogue. The problem for genre is that the message conveyed would have to be suggested or implied and the form required something more explicit. For this reader, the section destroyed the flow of the book and was just too obvious to need stating at all. It dealt with the past of the priest victim, and, by the end, all the reader could ask was “Is the Pope Catholic”?

But then we then return to the 1957 of the principal story and realise that perhaps in that decade, the answer to the question might just have been debatable. The interlude, however, prepares the reader for a particular turn of events which, when it happens, is rendered a tad predictable.

Then, having identified the principal culprit, John Banville takes us forward ten years to re-encounter a character from that Protestant family in Wexford, who then offers a different story that has remained hidden for a decade. Strafford, of course, knew all along, though he never bothered to tell anyone. And as far as the current reader is concerned, this sudden drift towards the explicit and the truth seems to present a trait that, for the character concerned, might have appeared out of character. And what could possibly be gained by such a change of heart?

I was reminded I was in the realm of genre fiction, where the plot is all and ends have to be tied up. The overall effect was still satisfying, but for this reader the problems always associated with genre fiction had again become apparent, though still bearable. I could, however, always be wrong! I refer back to the start of this review. Had John Banville produced another literary work, it might not of been in the place where I found it, under the title No1 in an airport bookstall. At least it was worth reading.

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