Ancient Light

Searching the past

Alexander Matthews reviews Ancient Light by John Banville


I remember reading John Banville’s The Sea shortly after it won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of its descriptions. It was poetic in the sense of carrying emotional weight, in the sense of describing so freshly and remarkably the elements of water and light and the aching shades of human feeling. Not a word was wasted; not a word felt contrived. I still rank it among my favourite novels – a lodestar.

Ancient Light is not The Sea. It is a very fine and elegant novel, but it lacks the poetic terseness of the latter; it is altogether more unhurried, more ponderous, less taut. And that’s fine. Here, again, Banville is occupied with memory and the past – the brittle subjectivity of both, the way memories can shift in the mind, or be mis-remembered. Alexander Cleave, a middle-aged, melancholic stage actor is our narrator. Somewhat improbably he lands the star role in a biopic about a controversial literary theorist. An account of his tentative interactions with the film’s crew and cast (particularly the vulnerable leading lady, Dawn Davenport) is interspersed with reminiscences of his affair as a 15-year-old boy with his best friend’s mom in 1950s Ireland. And then there is Cass: as he goes about his daily business, he is haunted by his beloved daughter who committed suicide a decade before.

In his drawing of character – a tortured actress, a weary lover, a ghostly wife  — Banville shows a masterful gentleness, wisely giving texture to our complex desires and our own unknowingness. Landscape is constantly and beautifully evoked, from country Irish lanes to the wintry Italian coast.

Ancient Light is a meditation on getting old, on the way the past occupies the present, on grief’s power to grip and tear. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. In excavating and obsessing over what has happened, what are we trying to achieve? In knowing those around us and what they did, are we trying to know ourselves? How do we make peace with our own histories – how do we lessen their hold?

Ancient Light may not be The Sea, but this sinister, haunting elegy to lost youth and the power of the past is wondrous nonetheless.

Ancient Light is published by Viking, R135, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Ancient Light by John Banville. To enter, email competition(at), with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.



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