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ELEGY FOR APRIL
by Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, April 2010
304 pages
$25.00
ISBN: 0805090916


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is hard to think of a more dispiriting setting than Dublin in the 1950s (though Andrew Taylor's Lydmouth comes a close second). In so closed, censorious a society, pious, sexually repressed, alcohol was perhaps the single vice that could be acknowledged, if not precisely approved. And Quirke, pathologist and central character of two previous novels, guiltlessly acknowledges his addiction - it is his moral failures that he has trouble owning up to. As the book opens he has just completed a stint in a Christian Brothers retreat for the addicted and alcoholic. His liver restored to some degree, he hopes to remain at least reasonably sober.

But his daughter, Phoebe, who works in a hat shop, that quintessential site of genteel female employment of the period, has been hanging out with a rather raffish (by Dublin standards) group of artists and actors, one of whom, April Latimer, a junior doctor at Quirke's own hospital, has mysteriously gone missing. She turns to her father to see if he can find out what happened, and he, newly awakened to his paternal responsibilities, promises to try.

And that, as far as the crime element goes, is that. For most of the novel, we are not certain that any crime has occurred. April may simply have done a discreet flit abroad. Quirke doesn't think so; it is his gut, rather than the evidence, that persuades him. In general, the book is about Quirke himself, his slide back into drunkenness, his attempts to form attachments, and his lovely new car, which he learns to drive in an hour but never quite manages to license either it or himself.

The problem I have with the book is that it hardly seems to be about anything except perception. There is a void at Quirke's heart and, as even he admits, "The trouble with sins and sorrows, he had discovered, is that in time they become boring, even to the sorrowing sinner." Quirke is not yet boring as a character, but the threat is there.

As everyone who cares must know, Benjamin Black has an alternate literary existence under his real name, John Banville. He has famously revealed that whereas as Banville, he manages only sentences a day, as Black he produces pages. (He makes the point repeatedly in interviews.) This is not to suggest that a Black novel is carelessly written. On the contrary, Banville/Black is an exquisite stylist and ELEGY FOR APRIL is filled with precise, careful description and subtle evocations of feeling and response.

Evidently, Banville/Black finds the crime fiction mode somehow liberating. Nevertheless, ELEGY is better read as a "straight" fiction. There is not much in the way of crime here and what is revealed is a cliché, not a surprise. What happens to the Alvis in the hopelessly contrived climax is the greatest shock. Do read it for its lovely prose, but don't expect too much in the way of suspense, surprise, or plot, the customary elements of the genre.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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