John Banville is one of my favourite authors and Ancient Light comes highly recommended by its blurber Sebastian Barry, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I expected to. That might just be because I loved The Infinities so much that my expectations were unreasonably high.
Ancient Light is edgier than its predecessor. Reviewers at GoodReads have noted that it’s third in a trilogy comprising Eclipse (0n my TBR from way back) and Shroud which I read ages ago, but didn’t much like. In the wake of The Sea (which I loved) and The Infinities which I found utterly charming, I had banished Shroud from memory, and so when I came to read Ancient Light, I had no recollection of its characters as recycled from Shroud: the ageing actor Alexander Cleave, his dead daughter Cass, and the enigmatic literary theorist Axel Vander. What was familiar, however, was a sense of unease…
Because it just so happens that I read this Lolita-like tale of a teenage boy having a lengthy affair with a woman of 35 in the same week that I completed a refresher course in mandatory reporting of child abuse, professional development which is required annually by my employer. Did it affect my reading of the book? Of course it did. I suspect that there may be many readers who – if not literary sophisticates – will feel more than a sense of disquiet about the way in which this affair is portrayed, and this made me wonder about how much, if at all, John Banville had considered how some readers may react, in the light of sexual exploitation scandals all over the world.
I still haven’t decided whether Banville is being deliberately provocative, suggesting that the man narrating the story was unharmed by his premature sexual adventures, and more often that not, initiated them. Or whether the oddness of the narration – its uncertainties, its half-truths and its false memories – is designed to show that his character was damaged by what happened, even if he can’t admit it to himself. Or should I just lighten up, and enjoy the humour?
Ancient Light is narrated by Alexander Cleave, unexpectedly landing his first film role at the age of sixty-five. He is to play the leading role of Axel Vander in a biopic with the anorexic Dawn Devonport as his leading lady. Cleave has never heard of Vander so is briefed by Marcy Meriwether and her spectacularly unattractive ‘scout’ Billie Stryker, and all this gives Banville the opportunity to poke fun at the film industry and its pretensions, while also offering a context for the theme of pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Identity is a major preoccupation of this novel.
Cleave believes that his first tumultuous relationship, with the mother of his best friend Billy, has defined all his relationships with women. He goes on and on about it, describing this teenage affair in nostalgic abundance. Every assignation in this idyll is drafted from his memory, and Banville has somehow managed to enhance the credibility of these memories with frequent reminders that Cleave’s memory is not entirely reliable. Cleave notes that some of the details he remembers so vividly must be wrong, and he comments sagely on his own immaturity at the time. (Alex was only 15, an age which would, under Australian law, have landed Mrs Gray in the law courts on charges of sexual abuse).
But whether it was meant to or not, the character that most interested me was Alex’s wife. Compared to Mrs Gray she is a mere shadow, a mere bit part in the novel. Yet Banville is the author who wrote so movingly about grief in The Sea and Lydia is the woman with whom Alex has shared the shattering experience of their daughter’s suicide. It is as if Alex retreats from his grief back into the joyous dream world of teenage lust rather than confront the real world of emotional pain. This is what made me wonder how much – if any – of Alex’s adventures were true.
PS I’ve just found this excellent essay called ‘The Long View’ that addresses my disquiet… it’s by Melbourne blogger Estelle Tang.
Author: John Banville
Title: Ancient Light
Publisher: Viking Penguin 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin