Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2012

Ancient Light, (2012) by John Banville

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.

James Ley (with his own little riff of wordplay) reviewed it at the SMH and you can hear John Banville read an excerpt here.

PS I’ve just found this excellent essay called ‘The Long View’ that addresses my disquiet… it’s by Melbourne blogger Estelle Tang.

©Lisa Hill

Author: John Banville
Title: Ancient Light
Publisher: Viking Penguin 2012
ISBN: 9780670920617
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin

Fishpond:Ancient Light
Or direct from Penguin.


  1. What coincidental timing on your reading of this book with what was happening at work. I’ve not gotten around around to reading Banville yet. He’s one on my long list of authors I want to read someday.


  2. I read The Infinities and enjoyed it greatly. I heard of this one but haven’t got hold of it yet . In view of your recent training course I advise you to keep away from my latest review of Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam!


  3. Stefanie, I used to think that my long list would get shorter as I got older but now I know better!
    Tom, I saw your review of Lamb, and had an ‘Oh-no, not another one!’ chuckle!


  4. Hi Lisa, welcome back. Hope Moscow and Petersburg were all you wanted them to be. I think from what you said that Yasnaya Polyana certainly was.
    Re Ancient Light, I found it rewarding and very interesting, partly as a superb reflection on and representation of the way memories, particularly of older people with crowded experiences, push to the fore and demand to be relived and reassessed; and partly because of the elegant writing. Maybe you should forget about the social studies issues and enjoy it not so much for the humour as for the superb prose and ancient wisdom.


    • Hello Judith, you’re right, I forgot to mention the prose which is, as you say, mostly glorious. The memory and forgetting issues reminded me a bit of Julian Barnes ‘The Sense of an Ending’ but, for me, the constant refrains from the affair kept reminding me not only of the issues around that, but began to bore me. I couldn’t see how Mrs Gray could be getting much pleasure out of the brevity and repetition of most of their encounters, I doubted his recollection of them and I wondered why Banville kept on and on and on about them. It may be authentic, for all I know, but I think it’s kind of creepy if old men are constantly replaying their sex lives as if it’s the most important thing in a long life!


  5. Hello Lisa. I was very interested in your comments about uncertainties and half truths in Banville’s ‘Ancient Light’, and in Banville’s ability to play on our uncertainties as readers. Some months ago, I finished writing an historical novel (1890s) dealing with a rural school teacher who takes sexual advantage of his female students. The point of view – a child’s – is often ambivalent, which surprised me when I was writing it, and still does. I’ve put the manuscript away to think about! Our perceptions and memories ARE often ambivalent. How to render the truth of this without sliding into a defence of the indefensible?


    • Hello Dorothy, how nice to see you here, it was a real pleasure to meet you the other day at the Abbotsford Convent event:)
      Yes, you have nailed it, it’s a matter of balance, isn’t it? Playing out the story threads so that readers can make up their own minds, without stumbling onto that slippery slope.


  6. I ve not read Banville ,not sure why I like sound of his books but maybe not enough to buy new and never really seen many of his second hand ,which maybe is a sign he is worth reading ,thanks for the review Lisa ,all the best stu


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