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Customer Review

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 3.5 Stars. A Story That Glimmers Rather Than Sparkles, 1 July 2012
This review is from: Ancient Light (Hardcover)
"Images from the past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions... Madame Memory is a great and subtle dissembler".

Alex Cleave, a semi-retired stage actor in his sixties, sits in his attic room musing on a past love affair which took place in the 1950s, when he was fifteen and fell in love with a woman twenty years his senior, called Celia Gray, the mother of his best friend, Billy. Almost without dialogue, this story is first person narrated by Alex and, as he sifts through his memories, we learn about his past life - but only what he wishes to reveal for, as Alex tells us, we are being told the items of flotsam that he chooses to salvage from the general wreckage. While Alex muses on his past, his wife, Lydia, grief-stricken after the loss of their only child, Cass, who died ten years previously, suffers nocturnal bouts of mania where she leaves her bed and sleepwalks through their home, desperately seeking and calling out for her daughter. Alex suffering from his own grief, finds himself always in the position of trying to comfort Lydia and, after yet another sleepless night, as they sit on the stairs and around them "the hall furniture stands dimly in the gloom like shocked and speechless attendants", Alex wonders about the nature of grief and whether there is such a thing as the mortal soul. And as Alex tries to cope with caring for Lydia and mourning the loss of his daughter, he takes refuge by revisiting moments from his past.

As Alex muses on his past life, we learn about his first meeting with Celia Gray, as she cycles past him and the wind obligingly lifts her skirt to reveal her stockinged and suspender-belted lower form, followed by a later sighting of her as Alex waits for Billy and espies her naked body reflected in a dressing table mirror; we read how their first coming together takes place in the laundry room amongst the washing, the soap powder and the ironing board; we learn of their love-making in the back seat of the family car and of their trysts in an abandoned cottage in the woods. And running alongside Alex's memories of a past romance, the story also focuses on the present day as we read how Alex is tempted out of retirement and is offered and takes up his first role in a Hollywood movie.

Regular readers of Banville's fiction may recognize Alex and Cass Cleave from his previous novels: Eclipse and Shroud, so this book could be termed the third in a loose trilogy of stories, but this novel can be read and enjoyed quite independently from the previous two. As always, Banville's lavish prose and his desire to create complex aesthetic effects is in evidence in this novel and, as I read in a 'Paris Review' interview, Banville is unapologetic in being committed to putting language and rhythm above plot; therefore, his style of writing is something readers either seem to admire or dislike - as shown by the mixed reviews of this novel from Amazon readers. Personally I am generally an admirer of Banville's writing, but I do have to say that I did not find this novel quite as satisfying as some of his previous novels, particularly The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable. In summary I can say that this beautifully written, rather sombre story, is a tale that glimmers rather than sparkles.

3.5 Stars.
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