Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ancient Light

John Banville
Ancient Light

Viking, 2012

Actor Alexander Cleave is at decline of his career. He lives with his wife, Lydia, with whom they still grieve for their lost daughter Cassandra, who died ten years ago in the Italian resort of all places.

To once again remember what love is, Cleave writes a story about the greatest love of his life. His memories start with the day when he saw a woman's underwear, who rode on bycicle. He was not sure was it the same woman that he knew closely for the next five months. Alex was 15 years old at the time, still a schoolboy, with a very limited knowledge of the opposite sex. His best friend was Billy Gray, with whom they often walked, went to school together, and Alex in the morning waited at Grays home while Billy would prepare himself to go to school. One morning, Alex was waiting for Billy and decided to walk through the corridors of the Gray’s house. Grays have had a big house: Billy's father, Mr. Gray, kept optics shop, and the family lived quite comfortably, compared to many others. Passing by one of the rooms, Alex accidentally had seen Mrs. Gray, naked, looking at herself in the mirror. The boy held in memory this remarkable moment, until one day Mrs. Gray had given him a lift home after tennis game, and during a stop asked to kiss her. After the kiss, Alex doesn’t sees the woman who is older than him by 18 years, she was 33, for a week, thinking it was a random incident. But a week later, Alex is again in the house of Grays, and then in the basement laundry room, Mrs. Gray puts him the mattress and makes love to him. Since then the regular meetings between the boy and the mother of his best friend begin.

From the beginning there was a suspicion that the actor Cleave was an unreliable narrator. There can not be a person of such a memory. From the way he seemed to deliberately missed the point, copying them to the gaps in memory, one could guess that something with the narrator was wrong.

And it was, although it was impossible to predict the final, it was possible only to assume that the twist would be, and that sort of twists there are in every Banville’s novel. It is, of course, right to say that you need to read this novel not for the unexpected finale. «Ancient Light» is a dust photo, which the writer has restored so that it had become even better than before. Banville weaves verbal lace, as a poet choosing the right words, often those that you can see only in poetry.

Banville always stands out because he fills his books with ravishing descriptions, accurate details, such as the nail on the head, but his prose has plot. It moves like a snake with tattoos: We consider drawings of unearthly beauty and watch the graceful snake-story. The author has possession of colors, the language, and the canvas, the story, so they’re mixing – and we see a picture.

The novel is daring at times, but not one that is asking for trouble. The book is not about the provocative love, but about the rebirth of love and revival of the memory of love. The central plot-line there is the five months of passion (love?) between Alex and Mrs. Gray, and the subplot about the film and the actress is clearly secondary. This plot-line connects the «Ancient Light» with two other novels by Banville, which I have not read. But the past and present intersect here just with the theme of revival of love.

This book offers an elegant and refined reading and is hugely enjoybale.

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