I still recall the feeling of wanting to poke my eyes out with a stick while ploughing my way through John Banville’s THE SEA (yes I know it won the Booker but I’m prepared to admit it bored me to tears even if that marks me a philistine) so I wasn’t exactly tripping over myself to venture into his alter-ego’s attempt at a crime novel. But someone had given me a set of the DVDs based on the books so I thought I should have a go at one of the novels first. However I have to acknowledge that while I tried to approach CHRISTINE FALLS with an open mind I probably failed. Just so you know.
CHRISTINE FALLS is the first novel of a series set in 1950’s Dublin and having at its centre the Griffin family who are part of the Catholic aristocracy. Quirke (if he has a first name I missed it entirely) is the foster son of the family, a pathologist and a drunk. When he notices his foster-brother Malachy – also a doctor – fiddling with a file he has no need to be fiddling with, Quirke becomes determined to find out what lay behind Mal’s fiddling with the file of someone called Christine Falls. This leads Quirke to endure his family’s wrath, a couple of beatings-up and a trip to America. At the same time as all this getting drunk and beaten up is going on we meet a young Boston couple who have adopted a baby called Christine.
CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him. Here an attractive nurse literally jumps on Quirke despite him having been beaten to a pulp and still being covered in bruises and bandages. I’m sorry but my eyes rolled. It’s this type of nonsense which stops me reading more noir.
Although in the end it offered a satisfactory, if bleak, resolution I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the plot either though I suspect if you read less crime fiction than I do you might have been less annoyed. I didn’t really get a genuine surprise in the lot but can acknowledge I’m not the average reader when it comes to this stuff.
The other thing I suppose one can’t do when discussing a writer of Black/Banville’s stature is fail to mention the writing itself but even there I’m afraid I wasn’t won over. Some of it – particularly the early scenes depicting Claire and Andy who are the adoptive parents of baby Christine – is rather beautiful but there is a lot of repeated imagery. I lost count, for example, of the number of times people are described as being like a stubborn/surly/recalcitrant child. And towards the end of the novel there’s a rape scene that just made me squirm. I can’t quote the passage now as the book’s gone back to the library but at the crucial moment we’re drawn to the image of dark and powerful waves crashing on nearby rocks. As if rape is as natural as ocean tides? Ick.
So…the book is not for me. I’m probably in the minority (again) but I found the characterisations too stereotypical, the gender politics bloody depressing and the plot easily predictable. As always though other opinions are available.
Having been underwhelmed by the novel I took a while to get around to watching the adaptation but it was a gift and it does feature Gabriel Byrne (on whom I have long had something of a crush). It is the first of three 90 minute episodes of a TV series which first aired in the UK earlier this year (the next two episodes are adaptations of the next two novels in the series).
Byrne makes a decent Quirke. He is more physically attractive than the book suggests but still permanently morose and nearly always drunk so not exactly someone real-world women would jump on with quite the alacrity of fictional ones. But he does get the essence of the character: a man who has lost much and missed opportunities and whose stubbornness on the trail of a mystery is inextricably tied to his family and his own life experiences. I’ve actually watched all three episodes now so I can’t be sure this is evident from just the first episode, but there’s definitely a sense that Quirke is not always so diligent – only when there’s something personal at stake.
Despite my aforementioned crush on Byrne it was actually Nick Dunning as Quirke’s foster-brother Malachy and Michael Gambon as their father (a judge with much influence both politically and within the family) that steal the show. Both characters are a bit meatier than in the book and the actors seem to enjoy their roles whereas Byrne and the women don’t really have much to do with only one emotion each to play with.
The storyline of the novel is followed fairly closely although the bits which are removed presumably for length reasons are generally the bits of the book I liked most. In the adaptation the depiction of baby Christine and her adoptive parents is superficial at best which is something of a shame.
I did enjoy the TV show more than the book but if I’m honest that’s probably because it was shorter and I really had few expectations by that point.
I actually don’t know that a person who hadn’t read the novel would have been able to follow the story all that well as a lot of knowledge about who was who and what their relationships were to each other seems to have been assumed.
Ultimately though I’m not sure I can really award a winner as I really wasn’t taken with either format. For me both versions of the story suffer from offering more style over substance. As if being dark and moody is all it takes to make something interesting.
Have you read the book and/or seen the TV show? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?
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