Ancient Light by John Banville

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Ancient Light by John Banville

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Banville's pace is slow but this is more a celebration of exquisite writing than a gripping plot. The narrator looks back on an old love affair in this evocative book. Not much happens but it is always beautifully described.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670920617

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The narrator in John Banville's Ancient Light is Alex Cleave, a stage actor in the curtain call of his career. For reasons that become clearer towards the end of the book, he is recalling his first relationship, when as a teenager in 1950s Ireland, he had a passionate affair with the mother of his best friend. However, his past is also blighted by recollections of his own daughter's suicide ten years previously.

Anyone picking up a John Banville book expecting a fast and gripping plot has probably been very poorly advised on book selection. This simply isn't what Banville does. In fact, I was reminded somewhat of the infamous theatre review for the first production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot which described it as 'as play in which nothing happens. Twice'. The same could be said of Ancient Light although in fact there are three relationships with women that Cleave explores, none of which with his wife incidentally, and so could perhaps have be described as a book in which nothing happens three times. But Banville's rich prose and steady pace is quite sumptuous. It may be too slow moving for some, but I found it enthralling.

As much as anything it's a book about memory. Cleave's narrative voice is utterly convincing, and at times it feels like sitting with a much loved, elderly relative who is going on, and on, and on. There are moments when you want Cleave to get to the point, any point, but equally, there's a sense that just listening to the voice is something you will want to remember. His gentle maundering about the past, full of self correction and self awareness is beautifully rendered. Despite some unlikable traits, he remains sympathetic throughout and evokes sadness and the reader's pity.

The prose is dense at times. Banville is given to long paragraphs, long sentences and there is minimal dialogue to speed things up. There is also a smattering of classical character allusions, although I found it far more approachable than, say, The Infinities. Nevertheless, there were times when I found myself putting the book down just to come up for air. It's like eating a rich meal, you need an inter-course break before returning to Cleave's recollections of, ironically, intercourse.

Often with first person narratives it can be hard to get a clear image of the narrator, and certainly you only get a one-sided view, but Cleave is so open and honest about his past that you really feel you know this man. He knows when his memories may be unreliable, and tells you this.

It's also a thoughtful book on how couples deal with grief particularly of a child. Cleave returns to memories of happier times while his wife, who remains on the periphery throughout seems to have almost stopped existing in the real world.

It's beautifully constructed and superbly written. It's far from a light read, but it's a book that will stay with me for a long time. It won't be to everyone's taste however.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Viking for sending us a copy of this book.

Memory is also much on the writer's mind in The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes which makes an ideal companion read to this book. You might also appreciate Lay Me Down by Nicci Cloke.

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Buy Ancient Light by John Banville at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ancient Light by John Banville at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Ancient Light by John Banville at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ancient Light by John Banville at


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