79 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly evocative, but...
Whether or not you like this book will depend on your response to Banville's style. The story is slow and contemplative; narrated by an ageing actor, it tells the story of his first sexual awakening in an affair with the mother of his best friend, the suicide of his daughter ten years ago and his current involvement in shooting a film. He often addresses the reader...
Published on 29 April 2012 by Sid Nuncius
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Shakiness of Memory
On reading Ancient Light, I felt that I'd read it before. Perhaps this is because, subject-matter wise, it is reminiscent to me of 'Notes on a Scandal' or 'Lolita'. In contrast, however, Ancient Light is more ponderous and knowing, more poetic, elegaic and tired and also verbally obscurantist. A lot of reviewers reached for their dictionary on reading some of these...
Published on 9 Jun 2012 by D Webster
Most Helpful First | Newest First
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Time and Memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators...always shifting the furniture about and redesigning rooms.",
John Banville has always specialized in short, dense novels in which his narrators are unreliable, even dishonest. These characters actually see themselves differently from what they really are, and as they remember and talk about the past, their memories are at least as much invented as factual. In Eclipse (2000), the first novel of this trilogy which deals with the same characters as Ancient Light, Banville's narrator is Alexander Cleave, a stage actor who has "dried" onstage and who has returned to his childhood home to relive memories and come to terms with the inner self which has betrayed him onstage. Shroud (2002) tells the story of the disturbed Cass Cleave, Alexander's missing daughter, presumed dead, told from the point of view of Axel Vander, a mysterious professor unknown to Alexander Cleave, who was traveling with Cass in Italy when she vanished.
Now, in Ancient Light, the final novel of the trilogy, Banville brings the arc of his plot to its conclusion, both in terms of story and of his theme of memory and our reinvention of it. Here, sixty-five-year-old Alexander and his wife Lydia (whose real name is Leah) are still mourning Cass ten years after she vanished. A former stage actor whose career is dormant, Cleave spends much of his time in an "attic aerie" musing about the past while writing a memoir about an affair he had fifty years ago with Celia Gray, the mother of his best friend. He was fifteen and she, thirty-five.
His memories of Mrs. Gray, still so vivid and exciting, dominate much of Cleave's inner life, and as he describes this affair, his life as a teenager becomes vibrant and understandable within the context of the 1950s in which it took place. Though he feels that his memories are real, he is constantly getting confused about the seasons in which certain events took place, and even he recognizes and admits that some of these memories could be false. The turning point in Cleave's life occurs when a film production company selects him to play the role of the mysterious professor Axel Vander, whose specialty is in "deconstruction." The film, to be called "The Invention of the Past," will also star the emotionally fragile Dawn Devonport. "She was Cora, Vander's girl, and I was Vander."
With its parallel narratives of Cleave as a young man having an affair with his best friend's mother, and Cleave as a sixty-five-year-old actor trying to save self-destructive Dawn Devonport, the reader is kept totally engaged with two vibrant stories, yet the scenes and events constantly suggest that there is more to the action than meets the eye. The result is thrilling, with the reader willingly assuming the roles of both detective and psychologist, analyzing the details, and finding the answers all related thematically, every detail on every level connected to every other detail. In prose that is relaxed but elegant, smooth, and evocative, the book is completely engrossing, and much of the novel also contains humor and a great deal of dramatic irony. Most readers will be haunted by the similarities of names here: "Alexander Cleave" is almost an anagram for "Axel Vander," raising another whole set of tantalizing connections and suggestions. The ending brings all the themes full-circle, and while some may accuse the author of falling prey to the convenience of a tour de force, it is perfectly fitting in its details, thematically. Stunning as a stand-alone, Ancient Light is even better as part of a trilogy.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A curate's egg of a trilogy,
I had not read anything by John Banville till I came across the FT's review of `Ancient Light', a novel that he published this year (2012). As it is the final book in a trilogy I bought the other two, `Eclipse' (2000) and `Shroud' (2002) along with it and read them one after the other. They were like the curate's egg - excellent in parts - and left me with mixed feelings.
I believe it was Raymond Chandler who said there are two categories of novelist: those who write stories and those who write writing. In `Eclipse', Banville is clearly in the second category. Alex Cleave, its narrator, is an oldish actor who has collapsed in mid performance and has returned to his childhood home in a provincial town in order to recover. The book is his disconnected reminiscences, ruminations, things he sees out of the corner of his eye that might be apparitions or just tricks of the light. The only action is in the book's last few pages when Cleave learns that his daughter has committed suicide and he journeys to Italy to identify her remains and bring them back to Ireland. However, the quality of Banville 's writing more than makes up for the lack of plot. I found it repaid reading slowly in order to savour all the allusions and flashes of colour.
`Shroud' has more story and less `writing'. This time the narrator is another self absorbed old curmudgeon, an academic going by the name of Axel Vander. The connection with the previous book's plot is loose but after a while it becomes apparent that, interspersed with episodes from the narrator's past life, we are being given an account of the events leading up to Cass Cleave's enigmatic suicide, the point at which the second book also ends.
In `Ancient Light' the sparkle in the writing that made `Eclipse' an enjoyable read has disappeared completely. We are back with Alex Cleave as narrator once again. This time he is persuaded to play the part of Axel Vander in a film but perhaps a third of the book is taken up with memories of his adolescence when, at the age of fifteen, he was seduced by Mrs Gray, his best friend's mother. As far as I was concerned, Banville never succeeded in making this unlikely episode plausible, mainly because within the constraints of a first person narrative the way in which the affair is experienced by Mrs Gray is no more than hinted at. I must also say that the two disagreeable old narrators were the only characters in any of the three books who came to life and that in my view the trilogy's conclusion is unsatisfying. Now that I have read `Ancient Light', I consider the ecstatic description given on its dust jacket way, way over the top.
I detected a clear decline in quality from Banville vintage 2000 to Banville 2012 which led me to wonder whether this particular trilogy is the best choice as an introduction to the author's work so I have ordered two of his earlier novels, `Mefisto' and `The Sea' and am reserving final judgement till I have read them.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully-written but self-indulgent,
"Memory is a great and subtle dissembler"
If you don't like self-consciously literary novels then best look away now, because this is very `literary' indeed, in both style and content. Alexander Cleave is in his mid-sixties and is very much an `actOR' in that classic, English, Olivier/Gielgud/Richardson sort of way. With a stage career behind him, he is making his first film about a post-modern critic. At the same time, his memories - unreliable, of course - take him back to his first love, a furtive affair with the mother of his best friend in 1950s Ireland. And, always hovering in the background, is the inexplicable suicide of Alexander's daughter.
Some reviewers here have hated the slightly blowsy, in places, prose style but I think it conveys more vividly than anything the personality of our narrator: he is verbose at times, but is also lyrical, and his language re-creates his character on the page, reveals the extent to which personality might be constructed textually. There's also a mordant sense of humour that emerges: the scene in the confession-box, for example, after Alexander first has sex with Mrs Grey.
Overall, this is a book about the way in which we create narratives in an attempt to construct coherency, to give us a stable sense of history and identity. The book exposes the fragility and subjectivity of story-telling, of memory, of the past, of identity itself, and is especially poignant when the narratives of people clash: Alexander's story of his affair with Mrs Grey, particularly, and her own story which we barely glimpse at the end.
So this is a book which I liked a lot but didn't love: it's clever, it's beautifully-written, it's moving in parts, but it's also a touch self-indulgent and tiresome.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Convincing narrator - even down to the irritating traits,
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, unless it's one of his books written under the name of Benjamin Black . 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.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Quite astonishingly over-written,
I don't think I have ever given a one-star review - I try hard not to - but I really did so thoroughly dislike this novel that I couldn't manage a second star, and only finished it out of duty, so that at least my review would be of the whole book rather than just a part of it.
It purports to be "the story of a life rendered brilliantly vivid: the obsession and selfishness of young love and the terrifying shock of grief. It is a dazzling novel, funny, utterly pleasurable and devastatingly moving in the same moment." Sadly, this description hardly fits this very dull tale of an ageing actor looking back at his boyhood affair with the mother of his best friend, and the more recent suicide of his daughter.
You might reasonably assume - as did I - that this plot would form the framework for an absorbing novel, especially in the hands of such an experienced and successful writer as Banville, but not so. The story, such as it is, is heavily concealed beneath a dense fog of language so flowery that it is almost a parody. Good descriptive writing enhances a narrative and brings it to life, but language such as this obscures it, drawing self-conscious attention to the words used rather than the story told. Thus (for example) the writer takes two thirds of a page to describe the boiling of a kettle: "...from the stubby spout a broad slow column of steam was rising,dense with the sunlight in it and lazily undulent, and curling on itself in an elegant scroll....this charmed cobra of steam leaned delicately away as if in vague alarm..." So the kettle's boiled. Get over it! This kind of writing (and there are examples on almost every page) lends nothing to the plot, and merely served to irritate (this reader). At one stage, the writer uses the phrase "trammeled in thickets, balked in briar", and towards the end, I was feeling the same about this book.
As to plot, the story, which I expected to be emotional and absorbing, was relatively slight (although I suspect that it was so swamped by the vocabulary that it that it didn't stand a chance), and I didn't really care about the characters. I would like to have heard more about the daughter's suicide, but this was referred to rather than actually described.
Maybe one of the reasons that the novel never came to life for me was the lack of dialogue. There can't be more than a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire novel, and dialogue does help to bring characters to life. The text, too is presented in large, dense chunks, and while it is divided into (long) chapters, these aren't numered or labelled, so the appearance of the book is more textbook than novel. This wouldn't matter if the novel had been an enjoyable one, but it wasn't.
Reading through this review, I find that I have hardly referred to the storyline at all. I suspect that this is because the language was so distracting that it had more impact on me than the actual story. And, sadly, that is why I shall remember this book; because it was, literally, the most over-written novel I have ever read. And that's saying something.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pretty but dull,
John Banville clearly has something about him because I keep reading his books - but like most of them, Ancient Light fails to satisfy. Whilst the sentences are sometimes very beautiful - almost self consciously so - and there are moments of humour, there is not enough story to carry the text. Don't get me wrong, we don't necessarily need a plot driven blockbuster with car chases and jailbreaks but Ancient Light doesn't seem to have anything at all. An elderly actor reflecting on a Mrs Robinson type experience with his best friend's mother and his own daughter's death on holiday in Italy. This is juxtaposed against his artificial life on stage and, recently, acting for film cameras and the slightly confused paternal/spousal relationship he develops with his younger co-star Dawn Devonport. Perhaps we are meant to think that his teenage affair with Mrs Gray led him to have a distorted view of relationships and family; perhaps we are meant to think his memory is at fault. But ultimately, who cares? For 245 pages this is a long and dense read which offers scant reward for perseverance.
At his best, Banville had a story to tell. Kepler, Doctor Copernicus, The Book Of Evidence. At his worst, he becomes obscure and vague - Long Lankin, Athena. This is somewhere in the middle. A journeyman actor who narrates in flowing prose and thinks deeply about the most mundane things. He never feels real, but does offer some early moments of comedy as he explores his satyrical self. But after the first half, we have more than got the point; we have charged our batteries with mellifluous description. Frankly, we just want it to end. And it doesn't.
3.0 out of 5 stars Ancient light,
We are supposed to find literary authors wonderful, and some of the language in this book is indeed lovely.
The plot however is scant and the content should occupy a short story. The author has padded it out by telling us the same events several times, from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy who is seduced by his best pal's mother, and has a secret affair with her, then retelling as an adult.
The adult is an uninteresting man who has lost his own daughter to suicide and eventually decides to retrace her steps to the holiday island she had visited, along with a young woman he barely knows.
Nothing really comes of either thread except that the mature man decides he didn't always see things with wisdom when he was a boy and his memories may have been altered by time. I think we've had that already in The Go-Between by Hartley.
I didn't really enjoy this book but I suppose it is good to highlight that not all sexual misconduct with minors conforms with stereotypes.
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient Light,
John Banville's use of language is quite delicious - makes me want to savour it. He is funny, too. Altogether the best book I have read in a while.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic,
This review is from: Ancient Light (Paperback)
Fantastic story and a joy to read. Banville at his best. It was very thought provoking. I didn't want the book to end... captivating!
4.0 out of 5 stars ancient light by john banville,
a thoroughly good read. will b reading some more by this author who keeps u wanting more with a brilliant style of writing
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Ancient Light by John Banville (Paperback - 28 Mar 2013)