Ancient Light

By John Banville

There’s a rule somewhere that every review of a John Banville novel has to begin by talking about the author’s rich, poetic style. It’s something you can’t fail to notice, and it’s essential to creating the Banville mood: elegant, even decadent, but never sounding forced or unnaturally elevated. Like a mouthful of an extra-rich pastry the sugar shock goes straight to your head even as you try to keep as much of it on your tongue for as long as you can.

When Banville is doing the beautiful voice his observations on the texture of someone’s skin, or the quality light has at certain times of the day, are rendered in sophisticated, rhythmic prose that, remarkably, rarely seems stuffy, labored or finicky. Rather the sentences stroke us like an oily massage, speaking in a silky susurrus.

When I was about halfway through the book I became convinced that “susurrus” was going to make an appearance, and I was not disappointed (indeed, it shows up twice). At the turn of every page Banville makes us nod at what we’re sure must be le mot juste even as we’re reaching for a dictionary to find out what le mot means. You can be both charmed and baffled by a beautiful description of falling snow as “great flocks of whiteness hosting haphazard in the brumous air,” “caducous leaves” lying in the road, and a rainy sky that “sagged and was the colour of wet jute.”

Brumous? Misty. Caducous? Fallen early.

As for the colour of wet jute, I can only come up with something dark gray and fibrous.

Then there are the people that we meet. Just a few sharp brushstrokes give us the following:

She really is of a remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of another.


Tall, thin, angular, he stood in the kitchen amidst a pool of little girls, like one of those poles that stick up crookedly out of the lagoon at Venice. He had a remarkably small and disproportionate head, which gave one the illusion that one was always farther off from him than was in fact the case.


He is large and ill-assembled, built on the lines of a buffalo, with absurdly tiny feet and skinny legs and a broad chest and broader shoulders and a shaggy mop of mahogany-coloured curls from under which shine out those glossy sad brown eyes of his, pleading love and forbearance.


I find him a peculiarly unappetising specimen. He is tall and thin, with many concavities, as if slices had been taken off him at flanks, stomach, chest; he has a pin-head and a mouthful of rotting teeth; his grin is more like a snarl.

If you think writing like this is just window dressing, because all you’re really interested in is a good story, then you’ll find Ancient Light only half succeeds. Though it stands on its own, it is actually the third part of a trilogy (the first two books were Eclipse and Shroud) dealing with the troubled and complex relationships between an aging actor, Alexander Cleave, his daughter Cass, and a villainous literary critic/poseur who takes the name of Alex Vander.

Like Eclipse, Ancient Light is narrated by Alex Cleave. Most of it concerns his attempt to remember an affair he had fifty years ago with an older woman (in fact, he was fifteen at the time and the woman was thirty-five). While reminiscing, and considering timeless literary themes such as how well we can ever know another person and what the relation is between memory and imagination, Cleave is brought out of retirement to star in a movie based on the life of Alex Vander, the man who, he suspects, was with his daughter Cass when she committed suicide ten years ago.

The flashbacks to Alex’s torrid summer of love make up all of the best parts in the book, while the present-day story about the movie and its tie-ins to the Alex Vander business (carried over from Shroud) are strained and improbable. Banville is often compared to Nabokov, but he fumbles when trying to imitate Nabokov’s semi-parodic, double-dealing plots. Instead, the real drama arises from Cleave’s gradual acquiring of some degree of self-awareness. This truly is a remarkable journey, made the more impressive by all of its slow, precise steps.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 14, 2012.

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