Eclipse by John Banville

When renowned stage actor Alexander Cleave was a boy living in a large house with his widowed mother and various itinerant lodgers, he encountered a strikingly vivid ghost of his father. Now that he’s fifty and has returned to his boyhood home to recover from a nervous breakdown suffered mid-performance, he is not surprised to find the place still haunted. He is surprised, however, by the presence of two new lodgers who have covertly settled into his old roost. And he is soon overwhelmed by how they, coupled with an onslaught of disturbing memories, compel him to confront the clutter that has become his life: ruined career, tenuous marriage, and troubled relationship with an estranged daughter. Publisher’s Synopsis

No recovering actor can pass up a novel about a thespian who suffers a nervous breakdown mid-performance. But the main reason I scooped up ECLIPSE and savored every word was because of John Banville. The writer in me can’t get enough of the masterful way he handles first person narrative.

The shattered life of Alexander Cleave is big enough to tug on a reader’s heart, but the expansion of the reader’s empathy comes from the way Banville threads the lives of the reader and Alexander together.

It has always seemed to me a disgrace that the embarrassments of early life should continue to smart throughout adulthood with undiminished intensity. Is it not enough that our youthful blunders made us cringe at the time, when we were at our tenderest, but must stay with us beyond cure, burn marks ready to flare up painfully at the merest touch? No: an indiscretion from earliest adolescence will still bring a blush to the cheek of the nonagenarian on his death bed.

Readers don’t need to know the specifics to relate to Alexander’s youthful embarrassments because they are haunted by plenty of their own. Layered upon this basic vulnerability is Alexander’s awareness of who he is— not the image seen by those around him— the elemental core that makes him tick.

There is in me, deep down, as there must be in everyone— at least, I hope there is, for I would not wish to be alone in this— a part that does not care for anything other than itself. I could lose everything and everyone and that pilot light would still be burning at my centre, that steady flame that nothing will quench, until the final quenching.

By acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of Alexander’s nature, Banville primes the reader for the emotional conflict ahead. The nervous breakdown was only the warning bell. Of course, Alexander hopes to escape this personal war by running back to his childhood home, believing the solitude will allow him to restore and refresh. But Banville refuses to leave him in peace. After only a short time, Alexander’s wife returns, unannounced. Unlike the intruders and ghosts that have enabled him to avoid his demons, Lily shoves him into the fray.

Then one day in the midst of one of our rows she turned on me a frighteningly contorted face and screamed that she was not my mother! [] At first I had thought she was accusing me of demanding to be cared for and coddled, but I dismissed that, and in the end decided that what she had most likely meant was that I was behaving toward her as I had toward my real mother, that is, with impatience, resentment, and that tight-lipped, ironical forbearance— the sigh, the small laugh, the upcast eyes— which I know is one of the more annoying ways I have of handling those who are supposedly close to me. A moment’s thought showed me, of course, that what she had screamed at me was simply another form of her assertion that I was treating her like a child, for that, as she never tired of pointing out was exactly how I had treated my mother. 

Alexander’s acceptance of this uncomfortable truth is the gateway through which he begins to unravel the clutter that has become his life. And Banville, writing close to the bone, lets the reader experience Alexander’s transformation from the inside out.

Before I rose I had not known what I would do or say, and indeed, I still did not rightly know what I was saying, what doing, but at the touch of Lily’s chill, soft damp hand on mine I experienced a moment of inexplicable and ecstatic sorrow such that I faltered and almost fell out of my standing; it was as if a drop of the most refined, the purest acid had been let fall into an open chamber of my heart.

I read John Banville because I am in awe of the way he handles first person narration. My awe stems from how raw he allows his protagonists to be. The vulnerability, self-awareness and introspection that they share illuminates the complexity of the human soul, challenges me to excavate my own demons, and leads me to a new level of understanding of what it means to be alive in this fragile world.