Ancient Light by John Banville

john_banville_2Ancient Light is a moving read, the latest from Man-Booker Prize-winning John Banville. With subtlety and grace, he lets us into the world of Alex Cleave, an ageing actor recalling a boyhood affair with the mother of his best friend.

Years later, he and his wife are struggling to come to terms with the suicide of their daughter, and his meditations on the love affair that shaped his adolescence gently introduce us to the rest of his life.

As his recollections grow to their climax, his present life throws up plot-twists of its own. Cast in the lead of a biopic, he befriends the film’s lonely starlet. With her help, he begins to better understand his daughter and uncover clues surrounding her death, lending the novel a hint of mystery and conspiracy.

Banville’s portrayal of rainy small-town Irish life is strongly evocative, and characters and scenes are recalled in wry and affectionate detail. It’s a wonderful exploration of adolescent (and adult) desire, with its odd mixture of impulse and selfishness. Cleave’s ageing memories of the affair are both powerful and evasive, and Banville’s fascination with the unreliability of memory becomes ours. The ‘present-day’ grief of Cleave and his wife is also perceptively explored, a delicate story in its own right.

Despite the heady subject matter, this steady, calm novel is a great chance to enjoy what Banville does best: careful, beautiful prose.

What stands out to me is Banville’s tender respect for his characters. Despite his sharp sense of humour, he never reduces them to something sordid or ridiculous. The pages of the novel are illuminated with poignancy and elegance, along with the odd moment of joy. For those new to Banville, it’s a bit Winton, a bit Tóibín – and a bit something else entirely.

Ancient Light is out in paperback ($29.95).


imogen-dewey-pic Imogen Dewey is a bookseller at Readings Carlton. She reads chocolate and eats books. She has next to no general knowledge, but does have a diet quite high in fibre.