Ancient Light by John Banville is the latest from the award-winning author of The Sea, Shroud and Eclipse. Classical actor Alexander Cleave returns to his childhood home after yet another professional failure. Returning home has caused Cleave to begin digging back into his past. His remembrances focus on an affair he had as a teenage boy with Mrs. Gray, his best friend’s mother and a woman 20 years older than him. He is also wrestling with the death of his beloved daughter and he is getting ready for an astonishing recovery of his acting career.
As with all first person novels, the reader is stuck in the mind of the narrator; only knowing what they know, only seeing what they see and victim to the self-deception of the story-teller. When Cleave was 15, fifty years before, he had the affair with Mrs. Gray. Cleave seemingly has no idea how it started, why it lasted or what even brought the two together in the first place. Mrs. Gray had just turned 35 and had suffered a miscarriage. Although neither of those events seem to be that important to the story, at least to the memory of Cleave.
Meanwhile in the present, Cleave and his wife, a very minor figure in the novel, barely speak and seem to hardly know each other, although they have been married for years. The marriage was all but destroyed by the suicide of their mentally ill daughter years before.
Small wonder that Cleave finds the world of his past to be altogether more attractive than his present. His past, like everyone’s, is far fuller of hope and promise than the now seems to be. So, his covert romance with Mrs. Gray is depicted as a relationship that, while it could not last and could not be made known, seems to follow a set of simple motives and gives nothing but pleasure. Allowed full range of his sexual passion and physical access to the more experienced woman for the 15-year-old Alex, it is impressive to say the least. Mrs. Gray is both lover and authority figure to Alex.
Meanwhile, the present intrudes on Cleave in the form of Dawn Davenport, an actress in the new film (ponderously titled “The Invention of the Past”) Cleave has been hired to perform in. She and the researcher, Billie Stryker, are the sounding boards for Cleave. However neither emerges as fully realized characters. This is perhaps because they are not fully acknowledged by Cleave himself inside his rather self-centered angst.
Banville’s prose is dense to the point of being leaden. Think James Joyce on one of his lighter days. The novel’s beginning seems totally disconnected from the rest of the book. The past and present mix at random throughout. The effect is disorienting to the reader as the novel advances and retreats and shifts time and place with no rhythm. No answers are given in the end, no questions are resolved. Only that Cleave’s life seems to be continuing in the same gloomy path that it started on.