Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ancient Light by John Banville

I started to read Ancient Light the day after I finished Leftovers by Stella Newman. While I enjoyed Leftovers to some extent, after I read a few pages of Ancient Light, I thought: "This is literature. Real literature". As opposed to the light reading.

I haven't read any of Banville's books before, this novel was my introduction to his literary work.
Alexander Cleave, the main protagonist of Ancient Light appears in the other two novels by Banville. He is a classical actor whose career has been reawakened.

The novel is set in the 1950s Ireland. A small provincial town. Alexander Cleave looks back at his own 15-year-old self, falling head over heels in love with a thirty-five-year-old woman, mother of his best friend.

Half a century later, Alex is trying to recall his past. He is grieving the loss of his daughter Cass, who had mental health problems and committed suicide in an Italian town Portovenere (this story is told in Shroud).

Alex's life is influenced and shaped by the women around him, be it Celia Gray, his first love, his wife Lydia, late daughter Cass, researcher Billie Stryker and actress Dawn Devonport. Men are simply in the background, more of an audience than performers in the drama.

The novel is moving from the present to past, the dividing borders are blurred, and the threads of narrative are interwoven.

A mature Alex doesn't make a moral judgement on his first love, he tries to recreate the events of the past, but is often left wondering if he has been inventing details and mixing up the events.
"Images from the past crowd in y head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler".

Not even once Alex reproaches Mrs Clay for seducing him and stealing his innocence.
His narrative is a hymn to a female body where every freckle is worshiped and every imperfection is admired as a work of art.

Spoiler alert (if you haven't read the novel, perhaps you should stop reading here):
In some way the novel reminded me of Life of Pi, as it is very much about the protagonists's memory of the past, and whether his version of events is what has really happened.
Did Mrs Gray really throw herself in the arms of her juvenile lover with such abandon, meeting him in a half-ruined cottage and making love on a dirty mattress? Or is it a figment of Alex's imagination, did he invent the whole affair out of one episode, which took place after the rain, when Celia helped him to change his clothes?
If it happened, what would have caused a grown up woman to find snatches of happiness in the embrace of a very immature lover? Was it the fear of the imminent death that pushed her to taste the forbidden fruit of an illicit affair?
The love scenes are a bit too Freudian, including Alex's slip of the tongue when he calls Mrs Gray mother after having sex with her.

I am compelled now to read the prequel to Ancient Light, Shroud, to find out more about Alex's disturbed unhappy daughter Cass. The notes and letters which she left in the hotel room and which her father read after her suicide, often mention someone she called Svidrigailov.
Svidrigailov is of course a reference to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. He was the most unsavoury character, a villain and a child molester who drove one of his victims to suicide. An interesting allusion.

Going back to Alex, he undertakes a trip to Liguria, supposedly to distract Dawn from her recent failed attempt of suicide, while in fact wishing to revisit the place connected to his daughter's death. Italy doesn't bring him any sense of closure, if that is what he wanted to achieve, he is not able to go to the location where his daughter died.
"Ten years; she has been dead ten years. Must I set off in search of her again, in sorrow and in pain? She will come no more to my world, but I go towards hers"

The final pages make you rethink everything told earlier. I found the story of a little boy Alex who couldn't sleep after his father's death extremely poignant. His mother didn't let him climb into bed with her, but would reach her hand down to the scared boy curling in his sleeping bag beside her bed and he would clutch her finger in his sleep. And then years later, after Mrs Gray's departure, he finds himself creeping in his mother's room and sobbing on the floor only to find that she offers her finger to hold on, as in the old days.
And thus ends this devastating story of love, lust, death and loss.
An incredible book, thought-provoking and multi-layered.


  1. Totally agree! I didnt realise the other books were connected so I will also read Shroud. I also thought it was an interesting allusion regarding Cass's death. I really enjoyed this book in the end and I have taken from it quite a lot of what you have written here. I will make Shroud my next read! My only question would be, do you think people should read shroud before they read this book? I guess we will find out now!

  2. I didn't know there were two previous books until I finished reading this one, so I think it reads perfectly well on its own. But I plan to read Shroud to see how the books enrich one another.

  3. I have enjoyed reading your review more than the book but this is what's great about being part of a bookclub - the variety of opinions and opportunity to read books you wouldn't normally pick up. Maybe I should give Shroud a chance...

  4. I also enjoyed your review, I got a lot out of it too as it's such a layered novel.