John Banville: Ancient Light

By Guest Contributor Lili Collison

January 8th, 2013

It is always exciting to discover an author whose books you’ve never read before but to whom you have an instant attraction. Ancient Light is Man Booker prize-winning author John Banville’s sixteenth novel, so I’m obviously a little late to the game. On the bright side, I have fifteen other books to hopefully enjoy as much as this one.

Ancient Light, narrated by retired stage actor Alex Cleave, jumps between the past and the present. Alex is at once reminiscing about a love affair he had when he was fifteen years old with his best friend’s mother, 35 year-old Mrs. Gray. He then switches to his current state of affairs: he is offered his first film role in a biography about a mysterious man named Axel Vander. The film, and the people he meets while making it, cause him to start thinking again about the death of his only daughter ten years before.

Ancient Light

Alex is a personable, although flawed, character. He often speaks directly to the reader, drawing him into his musings, which makes one more sympathetic towards him. Looking back, Alex recognizes that his actions at times have been less than admirable and he feels regret for his behaviour. A constant theme throughout the book is the question of whether his memories represent the truth; did events actually occur as he remembers them? For instance, he recalls certain events happening in the spring but in his mind he sees autumn leaves on the ground. There is redemption for him at the end of the book, in a way, as it turns out the end of his love affair with Mrs. Gray was not the utter disaster that he recalls.

Sometimes the plot seems a bit contrived, especially Alex’s dealings with the leading lady of his film, Dawn Devonport, a fragile starlet who attempts suicide during the making of the movie. It’s obvious that Alex feels a connection to Dawn, due mostly to her similarity to his daughter, but it’s still a stretch for the reader to accept Alex’s decision to whisk Dawn away, directly after her suicide attempt, to the very town in Italy where his daughter took her own life.

John Banville

Putting aside these plot oddities, the writing is definitely what makes this book. It is absolutely enchanting, captivating, luxurious – any number of synonyms will suffice. Banville is a wonderfully poetic writer; he could be writing about mud and it would be interesting. Take his description of the first time he sees Mrs. Gray in the nude:

“Instead of the shades of pink and peach that I would have expected – Rubens has a lot to answer for – her body displayed, disconcertingly, a range of muted tints from magnesium white to silver and tin, a scumbled sort of yellow, pale ochre, and even in places a faint greenishness and, in the hollows, a shadowing of mossy mauve.”

Remarking on his uncharacteristic temper with Mrs. Gray: “I seemed permanently suspended over a pit of smouldering, sulphurous fury the fumes of which made my eyes smart and took my breath away.” Describing the film scout sent to meet him: “She really is of a remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of another.”

John Banville

There are countless more examples of Banville’s mastery of the phrase, but admittedly, reading this book requires the reader to have a dictionary on hand; I consulted one numerous times. This shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent, however, but as a fascinating foray into the English language, which seems to be suffering at the hands of social media abbreviations. Each time I looked up a word, I had the same reaction: the word that Banville chose, a word that I had never come across previously, was perfectly apt. Rather than seeming pretentious, his use of these obscure words made his writing seem even more sublime, opening the reader’s eyes to the beautiful nuances of language. Ancient Light is simply a pleasure to read.

Lili Collison still gets tingles when she enters a bookstore or library and sees all the potential good reads. An avid reader and baker, she raises three kids who thankfully also love books and eating dessert.


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