‘Snow’ by John Banville

‘Snow’ is a sad, uncomfortable, dispiriting journey back to an Ireland I hope we never see again. One where the power of the Catholic Church, obsessed with protecting its priests, is wrapped around Ireland like a cold wet shroud.

In 1957, Ireland had only been a Republic for nine years. The economy was so badly stalled that sixteen per cent of the population emigrated. Those who fought and killed in the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed it had, by 1957, become the police and the politicians.

John Banville sets up the plot of ‘Snow’ to display the way power worked in Ireland. Issues of class, sectarianism and the power of the Catholic church coat this story like mould on a damp wall.

Yet this more than a dry polemic against the Irish Establishment of the day. It’s a story illumined by vividly-drawn, memorable characters, all of whom have been touched by the killing of the priest.

‘Snow’ doesn’t offer a particularly challenging mystery, nor is it meant to. From the beginning, John Banville chips aways at the conventional country house whodunnit facade of the story with genre references – The first thing the Colonel says to the Detective is ‘The body is in the Library’, summoning the shade of Miss Marple – a candlestick is offered as a clue – the forensics team job about when Poirot will arrive. It is soon apparent that the first challenge the detective faces is deciding whether his superiors want him to find the killer or cover up the murder because priests do not get murdered in Ireland. Even the priest who is slaughtered in the first few pages of the book shares this view, giving the novel its wonderful first line:

‘I’m a priest, for Christ’s sake – how can this be happening to me?’

It’s not the solving of the mystery that’s important to this book but displaying the cancerous behaviour at its heart, seeing how it rots the lives of those it touches, and understanding the silent but passionate pain it produces in a society where what is seen and known is neither acknowledge nor acted upon .

One of the things that I enjoyed most about the book was how well-wrought the main characters were. Three, in particular, stand out: the detective, the priest and the Archbishop (now doesn’t that sound like the first line of a joke? ‘ A detective, a priest and an Archbishop walk into a bar…)

Scion of the landed gentry, member of the Church of Ireland, Dublin-based Detective Inspector St John Strafford is unlike any other fictional detective that I’ve come across. He is an emotionally distant man, adrift in his own life and already mourning his own lack of purpose. He is uncomfortable in his class and in his job. He’s hungry for contact but has a crippling inability to connect or to sustain a connection. He is a man defined by negatives: not living up to the expectations of his class, not being man enough to be a real policeman, not drinking, not smoking, almost not living. For him, abstinence has become such a habit that he is no longer able to access his own passions.

Then there is the priest who has been murdered. John Banville breaks the narrative partway through the book to give us an ‘Interlude’ inside the priest’s head. He is charming, urbane, educated, mildly amusing, completely unable to see himself as anything but a victim, barely a sinner, certainly not the incarnation of sin. He is what God made him so what he is is not his fault. The ‘Interlude’ gave me a deep insight into the man but didn’t generate any empathy. I found him fundamentally and irredeemably repulsive.

We meet the Archbishop when he summons the protestant Strafford to his presence to ensure the policeman knows what is expected of him: to do whatever is necessary to protect the good name of the Church. The Archbishop was Dracula in a cassock and a purple sash. Cold from the heart out but clever and ruthless. Dripping the venom of doubt and threat and disdain. Undead in his own cold grip on life, with his hands tight around the throat of the enemies of the Church. Yep, he definitely made an impression.

Rural Ireland itself is almost a character in this book. It is a place of discomfort where the rooms are never warm enough, the food is rough and the people are no better than they should be. It’s a society driven by class and rank and religion, where knowing a person’s name will tell you their religion and hearing their accents will tell you their class and where all authority wears a uniform, secular or religious and owes allegiance to a chain of command.

This is a book filled with people who, as children, were deprived of love, especially loving parents and it shows how that shapes the adults they become. The main thing I took away from this book was how corrosive it is to let that deprivation become normalised instead of being made problematic.

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of ‘Snow’. Stanley Townsend does a great job of bringing out nuances of accent that I might have missed if I’d read the text myself. Click on the SoundCloud like below to hear a sample.

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