Love, grief and memory are common themes in John Banville's work, and his latest novel, Ancient Light, is no exception.
The story has two narrative threads spooling from the one narrator: a current storyline in which aging stage actor Alexander Cleave is given a rare movie role starring opposite a bright young thing, and a second storyline in which he remembers his first unlikely love affair as a teenage boy in 1950s Ireland.
Both narratives twist and turn around one another, allowing the past to inform the present, but also reminding Alexander of two tragic losses in his life: that of his first lover and that of his adult daughter's suicide 10 years before.
A killer first sentence
The book opens with a rather striking first line:
Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.
Alexander was 15 and Mrs Gray was 35. Their illicit — and illegal — affair commenced on a metal-framed camp bed — "or it might have been a horsehair mattress thrown on the floor" — set up in the laundry room and then proceeded in all manner of uncomfortable places: the back seat of Mrs Gray's car, a derelict house in the woods and the floor of the laundry room after the bed mysteriously disappears.
This tantalising storyline recalled in snippets and moments of self-doubt — "Images from the past crowd my head and I cannot tell if they are memories or inventions" — explores how the young Alexander was besotted with his older lover. And it shows, in painstaking detail, how the pair risked condemnation, ruination and, worst of all in Roman Catholic Ireland, damnation for their sordid behaviour.
Lots of questions to think about
A book of this nature throws up all kinds of questions for the reader — particularly when you consider recent news stories in which grown men have gone on the run with teenage lovers and then been thrown in prison for their actions.
This story might be about an older woman and her teenage lover, but does this make it any less of a crime? What was Mrs Gray doing sleeping with a schoolboy? And because Alex was, quite frankly, a randy young male, does this make their sexual liaisons more acceptable?
Of course, Ancient Light only ever tells Alexander's side of the story — and even then we are never quite sure how much of it is reliable, a point that he labours constantly. The reader, however, will come to their own conclusions. Me? I figured Mrs Gray was lonely, bored and looking for a frisson of excitement in her dull 1950s small town life as a homemaker and mother (this does not make it right), and Alexander, initially thrilled by the sex, was clearly not mature enough to handle the complexity of an adult relationship. He struggled with his emotions, often rowing with Mrs Gray or sulking because she behaved in ways he didn't expect. She fulfilled a need — and not just a sexual one.
Lovely writing, perfect voice
As ever with a John Banville novel, the writing is rather lovely, ripe with meaning and exquisite sentences. The voice of Alexander — a heady mix of pomposity, runaway ego and heartfelt regret and sadness — is captured so expertly that I did not know whether I loved or loathed him.
Occasionally alarming, often tender and moving, this is a novel of remarkable insight. And as a multi-layered confessional, looking back on a life marked by an aching sense of loss, it is a pretty damn fine one.
Ancient Light won the 2012 Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It is the final novel in the trilogy formed by Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), neither of which I have read, an oversight I plan to rectify soon.