Ancient Light has converted me to the delights of John Banville, although had I known this was the third book in a trilogy I would have started with the first book instead. The only other John Banville book I’ve read was Mrs Osmond which I didn’t enjoy, probably because I’d never read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James which that story is a sequel to. Not my fault, because there was nothing on the cover blurb of either to alert me.
Ancient Light is the story of Alexander Cleave, an actor in his mid-sixties, who tells the intriguing story of his first love affair as a fifteen-year old – with his best friend’s mother.
Alexander and his friend Billy are typical teenage boys, smelly and dirty, who alternate between sullen and boisterous behaviour. Mrs Gray initiated the affair, which seemed to be predominantly sexual and extremely risky, particularly for Mrs Gray’s, although Alexander says that on his part it was also love.
The book is about memories, and how they become distorted over time as people rewrite their histories. As Alexander tells the story, looking back so many years, it becomes clear that he has fashioned his memory of Mrs Gray and their affair to suit his own image of himself.
The present-day story is equally strong. Alexander’s only daughter suicided ten years earlier. Although he and his wife have grown out of the vicious fights they had when they were younger, they are not happily married. Alexander is working on his first film and his film co-star, a young glamour-puss, is also suicidal. Her story becomes part of Alexander and his wife’s grieving.
The film Alexander is working on is called ‘The Invention of the Past.’ Alexander is playing the title role of Axel Vander, the story of a literary man who may not have been who he said he was. Alexander comes to believe that there may have been a connection between his own daughter and Axel Vander.
The writing in this book is beautiful. I could use any sentence from the book at random to illustrate this, but I think the following is a lovely example of Alexander’s impeccable voice; as an actor every word he speaks is chosen to tell his story in the way he wants it to be delivered.
Mrs Gray for all her worked-at air of hazy detachment, was, I have no doubt, permanently on tenterhooks, fearful that sooner or later I was bound to go too far and take a pratfall and send us both sprawling in the disarray of our perfidy at the feet of her astonished loved ones. And I, I am ashamed to say, teased her heartlessly.
I suspect I may have condemned this story if the affair had between an older man and younger woman, but by applying the usual double standards I didn’t find Alexander’s affair with Mrs Gray creepy at all. (It was smutty, but that is a completely different set of moral values). I’m justifying my lack of concern because the events happened a long time ago, Alexander was a more than willing participant and that so many years later, he remembered Mrs Gray and their affair with pleasure. I’m well aware that none of these arguments would stand up in an Australian court of law if Alexander were to decide otherwise.
As previously noted, I was disappointed to learn that this book was part of a trilogy, which began with Eclipse, then Shroud before finishing with Ancient Light. Luckily for me, Ancient Light also worked as a stand-alone. (Note to self, write to John Banville’s publishers suggesting they add more information to his cover blurbs. For this to happen to me twice is frustrating).