Using his trademark lyrical prose, Ancient Light glows with some familiar Banville themes: the yearning for connection, the need for success, and the tough emotional road that is part of growing up. Behind the scenes is the sadness of a lost daughter and the true scars that are left behind. Banville’s poetic words paint an image that is shaded by simile and metaphor, he main protagonist’s memories of a teenage love affair
haunting the reader.
The tale is old by actor Alexander Cleave. Cleave lives with his emotionally brittle wife, Lydia, who still laments the death of their daughter, Cass, who perished off the coast of Italy ten years
ago. Many lovely passages highlight Cleave and Lydia’s oppressive sense of loss, deprivation, and all-pervading sadness; Lydia’s torments are embodied in the heavy grief she nurses in her heart.
Not much propels the plot of this novel apart from a mysterious movie woman called Marcy Meriwether, who wants to make a film based in the life of one Axel Vander. From here, the narrative splits in two, alternating between Cleave’s recollections of a tempestuous affair and his return to acting after being asked to play the lead in the film. The phone call from Marcy acts as a springboard, jumpstarting Cleave’s remembrances of his friendship with Billy Gray and how he fell under the strange spell of Billy’s remote, sexually frustrated mother.
The erotic liaisons with Mrs. Gray unfold, sex a presence on every page whether it is actually mentioned in the text or not.
Unfolding the notion that memory plays on the soul, Banville’s language rolls across his undulating narrative, propelling images from the far past that eventually crowd Alexander’s head. Many elegiac passages highlight the blinding illumination of Mrs. Grey as she steps forth from “the toils and trammels of domesticity” and seduces Cleave with her unambiguous earthiness: “the faintly stale smell of her hair, the ball of her bare shoulder, and the smell of some soap or cream that she uses on her face."
Most intriguing is to watch Cleave transform into fully-fledged sexual being even as he detects in his muse some unspoken condition that seems to make her “delicate.” Because Cleave is busy narrating Mrs. Gray’s story, he remains surprisingly unaware of how odd her obsession is or of just how deep it seems to run. Consequently, we are only afforded glimpses of how or why she behaves the way that she does. Billy and
his sister, Kitty (“all pigtails and specs”), and mysterious husband Mr. Gray are only seen through the prism of Cleave’s affair.
Although the narrative is at times a bit pretentious, the novel as a whole is remarkably staid and free of soap opera theatrics (although Banville does imbue his tale with a dose of humor for levity). Choosing to focus less on the aftermath, Banville
trains his eye on his protagonist blundering towards the brink of old age.
Cleave wistfully recalls his feelings (a “giddily, intensified mixture of anticipation and alarm”) and a time
period in which Mrs. Grey first caught Cleave's eye as she slowly gets drawn into the affair and begins to lose control to her obsession over her young lover. Banville does a good job at hinting at how this affair begins, even
though he never really overcomes the vagaries of his characters.
Obviously the highlight of the tale is this "boiling storm of a boy’s heart" set against Banville’s notion that Cleave is flattered that a mature, respectable wife and mother finds him so clean and immaculate.
In the end, I had theories but no concrete rulings on the how and why of it. I personally appreciate some of the room that is left for all of Cleave's sadness and yearning, but some readers will be left put off by the intimacies of the story.