I have only read a few of Banville’s novels, namely The Sea and also some crime fiction that he writes under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.

Ancient Light (Viking) was published in 2012. I read it over the holiday period and was totally gripped and seduced, mainly enthralled by Banville’s prose and his use of words.

Perhaps I was also a little confused by the non-linear narrative, but possibly the whole point of the book is that all is not what it seems… Whatever, it did not detract from the enjoyment of my reading experience. On the contrary, it has left me still considering it, days after the last page was read.

I need a dictionary nearby when reading Banville. Reading Ancient Light, I learnt many new words and meanings, for example leporine, proscenium, caducous, homunculoid, susurrus (my favourite)… His observational and descriptive powers are staggeringly impressive, and the way he sees and feels, and assembles words – ‘steepled fingers’, ‘there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions – is beautiful indeed to read.

The novel opens with the sentence:

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

An opening that does summarise a significant chunk of the plot and storyline. Yet, the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of this short sentence tantalises and entices the reader into a story that is far from simple.

The main protagonist, Alexander Cleave, who has also appeared in earlier Banville books, is a semi-retired actor, currently writing his memoirs. The novel is written in the first person, and thus all that we are told and shown is through Cleave’s perspective.

Nothing is quite how it seems, which the author acknowledges at the outset, disabusing the difference between memory and invention:

‘Madam memory is a great and subtle dissembler.’

Only near the end of the book do we discover the origins of its title – the ancient light of the galaxies that travel for millions of years to reach us. Looking at the night sky, we are thus always looking into the past, and the novel’s core focuses on just that, and is deeply rooted in Cleave’s past. Indeed, the sections that are based in the present seem much less real than those describing Cleave’s childhood, specifically his love affair, at 15, with the 35 year Mrs Gray.

Central to the book is loss, Cleave’s loss of innocence, loss of friendships and an early loss of childhood within the clandestine relationship. His subsequent life seems to have been lived, and overshadowed, by this first, and short, love affair. In fact, it seem as if the past, particularly in terms of its associated feelings, recurs as a ‘pseudo’ present.

There is also the loss of Cleave’s daughter Cass (who also appeared in earlier books), who committed suicide, and the void and distress her death have left for both him and for his wife Lydia. Of Lydia, Cleave comments:

‘She drinks a little too much, but then so do I; our decade-long great sorrow will not be drowned…’

This is one of many black ironies that Banville slips in – Cass died as a result of drowning.

Cleave and his wife share only sorrow now, a ‘mournful telepathy’, and their grief sets them apart from others:

‘Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.’

For Cleave, mourning is ‘a constant, parching deluge’, which so wonderfully encapsulates the non-straightforwardness of human emotions, particularly grief.

Cleave is a tragic figure, mostly consumed by, and frightened of, his own grief:

‘The dead are my dark matter, filling up impalpably the empty spaces of the world.’

The young actress Dawn Devonport ,who Cleave works with, recently lost her father. She in turn attempts suicide, and there is an almost bizarre transposition of roles, as Dawn becomes a surrogate daughter to Cleave and Lydia… But such is Banville’s writing that such subplots do no feel overdone or manipulated.

Mothers dominate much of the book, including the boy Cleave’s lover Mrs Gray, his best friend Billy’s mother. Before she appeared in his life:

‘Mothers were not people that we noticed much; brothers, yes, sisters, even, but not mothers. Vague, shapeless, unsexed, they were little more than an apron and a swatch of unkempt hair and a faint tang of sweat.’

At the time, Cleave, an only child, lived with his own widowed mother. He suspects that on occasion, in the the throes of passion with Mrs Gray, he cried out ‘mother’… He also desperately wanted to make Mrs Gray pregnant… Cleave’s daughter Cass was pregnant when she died.

These snippets are dropped in almost casually by Banville. One is unsure what to make of them, if anything.

Cleave speaks of the phenomenon of coincidences, only to dismiss them:

‘The statisticians tell us there is no such thing as coincidence, and I must accept they know what they are talking about.’

Yet, he also comments, following Cass’s death:

‘Coincidences were not now what they had been heretofore, mere wrinkles in the otherwise blandly plausible surface of reality, but parts of a code, large and urgent, a kind of desperate semaphoring from the other side that, maddeningly, we were unable to read.’

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the book is fundamentally based on coincidences…

I get the sense that Banville ‘plays’ with his readers, very cleverly, and tantalisingly.

One could read and analyse Ancient Light on many levels.

My own conclusion is that it was a joy to experience this work rather than an enigma to be deciphered.

CQ

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