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In a John Banville novel, a character’s losses are our gains

John Banville in 2005


Ancient Light
John Banville

John Banville, in Ancient Light, is up for an exploration of the two central losses in the life of his narrator Alex Cleave. The first, the loss of childhood, comes as a wistful recollection of the spring and summer in which Alex stole away with the mother of his best friend to a shack in the woods to explore "the spectacle of the female privy parts" and the innocent sufferings of first love. "I was a raw boy of fifteen then and Mrs. Gray was a married woman in the ripeness of her middle thirties," writes Alex, now a stage actor at the edge of retirement.

Yet pushing in on these pungent musings come the more recent memories of his adult daughter, who, emotionally troubled her entire life and recently pregnant, died by her own hand. Here we have a narrator caught in the headlights of reverie and despair.

Present-day intervenes with a call from Hollywood (yes, our man's an actor, don't forget, though purely a stage actor at this point) and a subsequent visit by one Billie Stryker, a talent scout and researcher who "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."

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Cleave is just the man to play the part of a historical figure, Axel Vander, whose identity was fraudulently hijacked after his death "in the early years of the war." The narrative strains only slightly in its attempts to draw the connections it chooses to pursue. Identity is a slippery fish, it seems, and Alex Cleave, a man who first learned to dissimulate in the youthful days of a scandalous affair, finds echoes of his daughter in the Hollywood starlet he plays opposite; he also finds echoes of himself in the infamous Vander, as well as in various sorts who pass phantom-like through the novel like tardy shadows moving over the big screen in search of a last vacant seat.

His is a world of "transience and hidden presences," an intricate puzzle of secondary characters hinting at the "spidery strands of connection, stretching across the world…" that culminates, perhaps too conveniently, in the attempted suicide of his fragile co-star and their subsequent pilgrimage to the country where his daughter took her life 10 years earlier. Banville's greatest gifts as a novelist are his ability to conjure memory and character in a voice that quivers with life, irreverence and nostalgia. He is able to expand on a moment like no other writer I know. Writers like Hemingway have a gift for stripping an observation to its essential truth. Certainty abounds. Banville works in the other direction. Certainty comes not with tragic pronouncements or the laconic fatalism of a Robert Jordan, say, but with a ceaselessly roaming eye always fascinated by the quicksilver gloss of memory and the perfectly drawn portraits of essentially unknowable characters. Truth is memory, and memory is never still.

Banville's afflicted and highly spirited stage-actor-cum-narrator is by turns fascinated and baffled by the two essential losses that have shaped him, and these musings on the ancient days and mysteries of lost love, balanced as they are against a grieving father's eternal suffering, are as perfect and lasting as your own heart's first glimpse of new love.

Dennis Bock's next novel, Going Home Again, is due next August.

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