AND HERE'S TO YOU, MRS GRAY,
This review is from: Ancient Light (Hardcover)
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"Ancient Light" contains all the sparkle and mastery one expects from John Banville, though occasionally it borders on showing off rather than artistic consummation.
"Ancient Light" completes a loose trilogy- following on "Eclipse" (2000) and "Shroud" (2002) featuring aging actor Alex Cleave. Cleave, like many of Banville's heroes lives most of his life in his memories. Here the centrepiece is the torrid affair he had at the age of 15 with the 33 year old and somewhat eponymous Mrs. Gray, his best friend's mother. This of course is every teenage boy's fantasy come true as well as constituting a serious sex crime on the part of the adult. Banville captures the passions of flickering adolescence with insight and wit without descending into farce. He makes much of the unreliability of memory - for example he has vivid recall of autumn hues at one scene even though his rational reconstruction tells him that it actually took place in spring. The writing is, as expected, superb though in the author's florid tradition: I especially enjoyed his comparison of a priest in the confessional to a horse shifting about in its horsebox. There are also echoes of Yeats, Eliot and Joyce and, I are sure, others in his prose.
In addition to his recollections of that fifty year-old affair (why did we not hear about such a formative experience in "Eclipse?"), Cleave broods on the suicide of his daughter, Cass that was covered in "Shroud." In the "present," in between his reminiscences, he is somewhat surprisingly (he has been unemployed since he corpsed spectacularly on stage in "Eclipse") hired to play the lead role in a film - "The Invention of the Past," ha, ha - portraying the life of deconstructionist critic Axel Vander, a somewhat sinister type of Paul de Man. He falls into a complicated relationship with his troubled co-star, Dawn Davenport who becomes a sort of surrogate for his lost daughter just as Mrs. Gray was a sort of Oedipal mother when the generations were reversed. Cleave and Davenport make their way to Italy, close to the scene of Cass' suicide. Readers of "Shroud" know, but Cleave doesn't, that Vander was involved in Cass' death, so the story has its complications. This whole strand, however, is weaker than the "Mrs. Gray" sections of the novel.
Overall the link between the two plots comes across as tenuous. Some of Banville's post modern tricks also seem too clever by a quarter: he himself appears as the script writer for the film; much is made of the imagery of mirrors; there is a reference to the real Paul de Man and to a movie called "The Wrath of Noon" starring Henry Cooper, and so on.
I read "Ancient Light" in close juxtaposition to "Vengeance," Banville's fifth "Quirke" mystery written under the pen name of Benjamin Black. I preferred the Black book. It is as if Banville responds well to the constraints of genre writing, just as many poets achieve their best work within the discipline of a tight metric form.
It has recently been announced that Banville will write a new novel in Chandler's Philip Marlowe series. It will be interesting to see the result. This confirms that he is seeking new territory, but in terms of style and sensibility of place, it is hard to imagine two more different authors.