ANCIENT LIGHT by John Banville

I recently attended the revival of David Hare’s Skylight on Broadway. During the First Act one of the characters made spaghetti. By intermission I was starving. My hunger could’ve become a distraction. Instead it made me more alert. My imagination pulsed eagerly while the sauce simmered. Ancient Light has nothing to do with spaghetti sauce but John Banville’s opening made me salivate: my mind begging for the story to move faster while I prayed for it to move as slow as possible so I could savor each image fully.

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.

Our narrator, Alexander Cleave is in his sixties. His acting career has faded like the romance in his marriage. His view of the world is bleak ever since his daughter took her own life. But under this veil of darkness he sees the past through the power of some ancient light, and there he is able to relive a transformative time of his life, and with detailed accuracy captures the dizzy joy and selfishness of adolescence.

I watched her with a mounting sense of alarm, no longer fearful of discovery but of something much worse, namely, that the shock she had got would cause her to take fright and flee […] If I were to lose her, how would I bear it? I should leap up now, I knew, and put my arms around her, not to reassure her—what did I care for her fear?—but to prevent her by main force from leaving.

I’ve been writing in one form or another since the age of eight and started telling lies earlier than that. But it wasn’t until Banville’s protagonist began to recall his childhood affair while attempting to sort through the current turmoil of his personal and professional life that I realized our memoires are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves. How we choose to remember the events in our lives shapes our success, productivity and our present happiness. As a result I was enthralled with Alexander’s ability to pull back from the moment in order to telescope in for deeper insight.

What an ill-assorted pair we must have looked, the obscurely, afflicted, stark-faced girl with her scarf and dark glasses, and the grizzled, ageing man sunk in glum unease, sitting there silent in that ill-lit place above a winter sea, our suitcases leaning against each other in the glass vestibule, waiting for us like a trio of large, obedient and patiently uncomprehending hounds. 

Banville paints such a complete picture moment by moment the book feels like an enormous landscape even though we are peering through a tiny lens of the protagonist’s life.

It makes no sense, I know, but if on a crowded beach on a summer day the swimsuits of the female bathers were to be by some dark sorcery transformed into underwear, all the males present, the naked little boys with their pot bellies, and pizzles on show, the lolling, muscle-bound lifeguards, even the hen-pecked husbands with trouser-cuffs rolled and knotted hankies on their heads, all, I say, would be on the instant transformed and joined into a herd of bloodshot, baying satyrs bent on rapine.

Alexander Cleave’s experiences, past and present, appear complex as he sorts through the whys and hows that brought these events about, and yet, time and again, he zeroes in on the truth with such simplicity we are tickled by his succinctness.

…a bond of sorts had begun to forge itself between us, and we found ourselves quite easy together there, or as easy as two actors standing in each others light could hope to be.

The above is also a lovely example of a peacefulness that resides in Banville’s protagonist even though he speaks most often of his tormented soul. Ancient Light is a beautiful, poetic examination of memory, loss and hope from the point of view of an actor, who has spent his life pretending to be someone else. His honest revelations and humor give us pause and challenge us to lift the curtain on our own past and see what we might discover.