TITLE: ANCIENT LIGHT
AUTHOR: JOHN BANVILLE
Alexander Cleave is an actor who thinks he has retired and spends a lot of his time in his tiny attic office, writing about the past and remembering his first love.
“Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.”
Alex Cleave was only fifteen years old when his unlikely five month long affair with Mrs Gray started. Now in his sixties he thinks back on the stolen moments, the illicit meetings, his jealousies and the way it all ended. But even as he is writing down his memories he is aware that he is not recalling the affair the way it actually happened. Why does he place the affair during autumn when he knows for sure that it took place over the course of a very hot summer in 1950’s Ireland? In fact, is anything he remembers about this passionate time true to what actually happened or is most of it the product of his imagination and the lapse of time?
And these are not the only memories coming back to him. Thrown in with the recollections of his teenage sexual awakening are the heartbreaking memories of his daughter’s suicide, ten years ago. A suicide that was never properly explained for him and his wife and took place in a location they didn’t even know there daughter had travelled to.
When Alex is offered a role in a biopic movie his present and his daughter’s suicide appear to collide, leading to a sort of pilgrimage that won’t resolve anything.
This is a book written in the most beautiful language and filled with deep reflections and philosophies. This is also a most fascinating story. The descriptions of fifteen year old Alex and his feelings when he is in the middle of his affair with the mother of his best friend are so life-like that the reader can almost experience them with the boy.
This is a story about love; discovering love, enjoying it, losing it and coping with the aftermath. This is also a story about memory and how unreliable it is.
“I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler.”
However, this is a very literary novel in so far that it deals with thoughts, feelings and perceptions more than with action. And for me this kept the story at arms-length. I never really got into the story, never felt any connection to any of the characters and always felt like a distant observer to some vague, not fully illuminated, drama.
And that is part of the reason I can’t say I loved this book. Another reason is that there were quite a few unanswered questions by the time the book ends. And while that is completely realistic measured against real life, I do prefer my fiction to come to a more straight-forward conclusion.
I enjoyed this book, and greatly admire the writing skills of John Banville, but I just couldn’t love the story.