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by John Banville
Hanover Square, October 2021
320 pages
ISBN: 1335471405

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Dramatis personae: April Latimer's family includes her father Conor, a Republican hero who abused his children and died by suicide; April's brother, with whom she became pregnant, and who committed suicide; April, who is supposed to be dead, but who has taken a second identity, and her uncle, Defense Minister, gunrunner for the Republican cause, and instigator of the hit to be carried out on his niece. Quirk's family includes his beloved second wife, Evelyn, a Jew, a psychiatrist, source of many wise comments on the human heart and mind, the only survivor among family members imprisoned at Theresienstadt; Phoebe, Quirk's daughter, curiously without affection for those around her; Quirk, state pathologist in Ireland, sometimes a very dysfunctional alcoholic, who forces us to ask of ourselves, concerning things we see through this point-of-view character's eyes, what is true? Terry Tice, murderer, once a denizen of an Irish orphanage, who has no memory of his family or his nationality; a friend, Percy the Pouf, but not for long; Percy's mum, but not for long at all; Terry casually hates homosexuals and Jews, and people around him do not live long without some sort of damage to their persons. Crooked government officials with something to hide and who can therefore be bought; weapons-suppliers, barkeeps, medical personnel, cops, whores and pimps.

The plot of the novel is this: while vacationing in Spain, Quirk, a pathologist in his later years, recognizes a young woman, his daughter's friend, who had been reported as dead. Quirk calls his daughter Phoebe, gets her reluctantly to agree to come to Spain and identify ("rescue??") her friend. The telephone call disturbs skeletons in closets belonging to people in power. Those people decide that the young woman, April, who is in Spain, should not be allowed to live. The hit is set in motion, a mortal danger of which Quirk and his daughter are oblivious.

My list ofdramatis personae fails to convey the rhythm of this novel: slow. Almost as slow as us mulling over a memory, or scanning a beach at a vacation resort, dawdling over a drink—which is what one of our point-of-view characters does, since he is on vacation in Spain, at the seashore. Our novel's sentences limn langourous awakenings between the elderly lovers, Quirk and Evelyn. When Phoebe, Quirk's daughter, becomes the new eyes with which we understand the world, we are trapped in the web of her insecurities, her narrow existence, nearly devoid of excursions of thought, and her loveless relationship. Quirk and Phoebe are joined by a third point-of-view character, and it is he, Terry the murderer, who opens this novel with his jumpy, disorderly interior monolog that circles round hits of the past and cagily glances at those who surround him: hits? Dangers? Sources of wealth?

These interior monologs which are the fabric of the novel, circle round and round to several leitmotifs, so that while interior monolog is the voice of the novel, the leitmotifs, tucked into corners of speech and memory so that they are almost whispered, are the novel's thematic substance. As we read, we encounter, over and over, death, loss, and covered-up grief; lack of affect, loss of affection or feeling, avoidance of memories; sex without love, love longing with no beloved upon whom to find expression, affiliation without love; World War II; the Holocaust; the Irish Troubles; Basque Separatism; homosexuality which must stay hidden; Jewishness which must stay hidden; Nationalism which must stay hidden; bureaucracy which directs human affairs but fails to address human passion; the endless sea.

APRIL IN SPAIN, with its silly play on words—the targeted victim is named April, and the events take place in April—is a most serious book. To read it seriously, the mystery enthusiast should put on his or her Deerstalker and take note of the words "lack of affect" and similar terms, whenever they appear. Lack of affect is an attachment dysfunction that appears in those who have experienced imprisonment, rape, torture, or community helplessness enforced by being in a state of war. Evelyn's family perished at Theresienstadt; the Irish Troubles gave birth to April and her dysfunctional Republican Irish family; the people of Donostia inhabit the Basque region of Spain; and among several of the characters, their youths were destroyed in the orphanages in which they were raised. Theresienstadt, liberated 11 May, 1945, can serve as a pattern through which to view acts of trauma that are the centerpieces of this novel. Theresienstadt, set up as a "vacation" camp for Jews during World War II, was allowed to be at least puppet-governed by Jewish elders. It is these elders who chose whom to send to Auschwitz. Each person traumatized in Banville's novel is traumatized by someone of his or her own family, group, or culture. It is our own who kill us.

Banville's book seems to be a thriller. It is really a study in the effects of Complex PTSD on multiple generations of Irish, English, and European people.

§ C. Downs, a retired professor of American Literature who lives in a small town in South Texas, occasionally enjoys the pages of a well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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