Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black








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John Banville continues his popular fiction offerings using the pseudonym Benjamin Black with a new novel, The Silver Swan. Garret Quirke, the protagonist and pathologist from Christine Falls, returns to solve a murder mystery set in Ireland in the 1950s. The plot thickens and secrets are uncovered while justice is pursued. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 22-4:


Quirke had long ago lost what little faith he might once have had in the Catholic pieties that the Brothers at the workhouse, offi­cially known as Carricklea Industrial School, where he had endured his early childhood, had tried for so long to beat into him. Yet even now, when he was well into middle age, he still had his household gods, his not-to-be-toppled totems, one of which was the giant rem­nant of the man whom for most of his life he had unquestioningly taken to be good, even great. Garret Griffin, or the Judge, as everyone called him, even though it was some time since he had been in a po­sition to deliver judgment on anything, had been felled the previous year, his seventy-third, by a stroke that had paralyzed him entirely, except for the muscles of his mouth and eyes and the tendons of his neck. He was confined, mute but in some way sentient, to a large white room on the third floor of the Presentation Convent of St. Louis in Rathfarnham, a far suburb of the city, where two windows, one in each of the adjoining corner walls of the room, looked out on two contrasting aspects of the Dublin Mountains, one rocky and bar­ren, the other green and strewn with gorse. It was to these soft hills that his eyes turned constantly, with an expression of desperation, grief, and rage. Quirke marveled at how much of the man, how much of what was left of the living being, was concentrated now in his eyes; it was as if all the power of his personality had come crowding into these last, twin points of fierce and desperate fire.

Quirke visited the old man on Mondays and Thursdays; Quirke's daughter, Phoebe, came on Tuesdays and Fridays; on Sundays it was the turn of the Judge's son, Malachy. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the Judge was left to contemplate alone the day-long play of light and shadow on the mountains and to endure with speechless and, if the expression in his eyes was to be credited, furious resentment the ministrations of the octogenarian nun, Sister Agatha, who had been assigned to care for him. In his former life, his life in the world, he had done many quiet favors for the Presentation nuns, and it was they who had been the first to offer to take him in when the catastro­phe befell him. It had been expected that after such a devastating stroke he would live no more than a week or two, but the weeks had passed, and then the months, and still his will to endure showed no sign of flagging. There was a school for girls on the first two floors of the building, and at fixed times of the day—midmorning, lunchtime, the four o'clock end of lessons—the pupils' voices in raucous medley rose up as far as the third floor. At that sound a tense and concen­trated look would come into the Judge's eyes, hard to interpret; was it indignation, nostalgia, sorrowful remembrance—or just puzzlement? Perhaps the old man did not know where he was or what he was hear­ing; perhaps his mind—and those eyes left little doubt that there was a mind at some kind of work behind them—was trapped in a state of continuous bewilderment, helpless doubt. Quirke did not know quite what to think of this. Part of him, the disappointed, embittered part, wanted the old man to suffer, while another part, the part that was still the child he had once been, wished that the stroke might have killed him outright and saved him from these final humiliations.

Quirke passed these visits in reading aloud to the old man from the Irish Independent. Today was a Monday in midsummer and there was little of interest in the news pages. Eighty priests had been or­dained in ceremonies at Maynooth and All Hallows - More clerics, Quirke thought, that's all we need. Here was a picture of Mr. Tom Bent, manager of the Talbot Garage in Wexford, presenting the keys of a new fire engine to the town's mayor. The Summer Sale was on in Macy's of George's Street. He turned to the foreign page. Dozy old Ike was harrying the Russians, as usual. "The German people cannot wait eternally for their sovereignty," according to Chancellor Ade­nauer, addressing a North Rhine—Westphalia state election rally in Dusseldorf the previous night. Then Quirke's eye fell on a paragraph on the front page, under the headline GIRL'S BODY FOUND.

The body of Mary Ellen Quigley (16), shirt factory worker, who had been missing from her home in Derry since June 17th, was recovered yesterday from the River Foyle by a fisherman pulling in his net. An inquest will be held today.

He put the paper aside. He needed a cigarette. Sister Agatha, how­ever, did not allow smoking in the sickroom. For Quirke this was an added annoyance, but on the other hand it did give him the excuse to es­cape at least twice in every hour to pace the echoing, tiled corridor out­side, tensely dragging on a cigarette like an expectant father in a comedy.

Why did he persist in coming here like this? Surely no one would blame him if he stayed away altogether and left the dying man to his angry solitude. The Judge had been a great and secret sinner, and it was Quirke who had exposed his sins. A young woman had died, an­other woman had been murdered, and these things had been the old man's fault. What impressed Quirke most was the cloak of silence that had been drawn over the affair, leaving him standing alone in his indig­nation, exposed, improbable, ignored, like a crackpot shouting on a street corner. So why did he keep coming dutifully each week to this barren room below the mountains? He had his own sins to account for, as his daughter could attest, the daughter whom he had for so long de­nied. It was a small atonement to come here twice a week and read out the court cases and the death notices for this dying old man.


The Silver Swan is a dark and brooding novel, so save it for reading on a sunny day when you can shake off the gloom.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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