From the moment you enter the world of Alexander Cleave via John Banville’s new novel Ancient Light, you know you are in the hands of a literary virtuoso, whose words dance off the page and draw you in completely. Cleave is, for the most part, narrating his memories of one formative summer when he was fifteen. And he is an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that he is wilfully deceiving or manipulating his reader, but the passage of time has faded the sharp relief of his memory.
The pictures which Banville paints of this first illicit love affair in small town 1950’s Ireland with the married mother of Alex’s best friend, Billy Gray, are glorious and sumptuous. The guilty but ever eager pair steal away for steamy sessions in a derelict, abandoned house in a shady wood. Alex refers to his mature lover throughout as Mrs Gray, rather than by her first name, in a very affecting way, redolent of his youth and naivety, and symptomatic of where the power lies in their fledgling relationship. Banville’s powers of description and ability to transport to a specific place and time are exemplary. These passages of the novel are as good as, and in truth mostly far better than, anything I have read this year.
But the disappointment for me comes with entwining this beautiful and poignantly fleeting story, which is embroidered in wonderful detail, with other themes which clutter the book up and break the spell. Alex as we meet him is married, and coping alongside his wife with the suicide of his daughter ten years before. He is also an actor in the twilight of his career, who is getting his first taste of movie making, and through it another emotional, although not romantic this time, attachment to a woman in turmoil. These strands simply can’t compete with the richness of the summer of love he had as a youth, and the book is lesser because of them. Every time they were explored I just wanted to get back to young Alex and Mrs Gray having furtive fumbles in the laundry room.
There is no denying Banville’s power as a writer. His prose is like velvet, and his love of language oozes out of every page. It’s just a pity this beautiful book feels a bit cluttered with too many competing strands that don’t work as well together as the one brilliant one would have done alone.