thoughts and things

Ancient Light By John Banville – Britmums Book Club

This is a book review as part of the Britmums Book Club. I was lucky to be one of the first 100 to be sent a free book as part of the book club, in order to review this month’s book. I have tried to keep this review spoiler free but there may be a few things which have slipped my eye, so beware! This month’s book was:

Ancient Light, By John Banville


Now, I didn’t like this book when I first started to read it: It felt like a stream of consciousness, a rambling tale with no direction. However in the name of reviewing this book as part of the Britmums Book Club, I persevered. And I am glad I did.

The blurb states that this book is about an affair between a fifteen year old boy Alex Cleave, and the 35-year-old Mrs Gray, who happens to also be Alex’s best friend’s Mum. The tale is written from the perspective of the older Alex, 50 years on. Alex is still trying to come to terms with the death of his daughter 10 years ago.

The book is essentially the thoughts, words, memories of Alex in this specific time frame when he is writing his account of the affair. John Banville as been said to write the truth, and I can understand this now. He writes as Alex would think, would write, he goes off on tangents like we all do. He weaves within this, a tale which on the outset looks like  scandalous tale of an affair between a boy and a married woman, but what you actually get is Alex trying to make sense of his life, understand the women who have played big roles in his life. As an actor, Alex seemingly looks at things as if they were an ongoing play or saga, with him the starring role. I feel he thinks he can never out d the greatest acting of his career – that of when he was 15 years old. He seems to have been acting ever since, trying to figure himself out, acting as other people so he hasn’t had to delve too deep. What we have to remember here is that essentially this affair was an abuse, of a child by an adult. Whether Alex realises this or not, it has had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.

Initially, Alex sounds very narcissistic, selfish and self centered. The book can be hard to read at times especially when you go off on a tangent, I kept reading but not reading the words, and having to back track, especially at the beginning.  Initially I think Alex sets off to write this book to show off about his past, this scandal, but in the end he starts to realise things about himself, and his life, and by the end of the tale I think Alex sounds more human, and definitely more weathered, and almost broken, as a person. I think essentially Alex feels lost, his daughter has died, he has no-one to look after him in old age, or so he feels. I think Mrs Grey was a mother figure to him, and he says this himself. He seems to have connections with women and then they are lost, gone, and forgotten.  His wife Lydia plays an extremely small part in the story, and it is as if the past has taken over Alex’s mind. However it is Lydia who is the constant, who is always there for him, despite his faults, which in the past seem to have been quite a few.

What I liked about this book, was that there was no happy ending, and only a small effort to tie up loose ends. Like life, we don’t know all the answers. I would have liked to have read more about his daughter and what happened to her but that’s the point – no-one knows. No-one will know. Just like in life, some things remain unanswered.

I found the parts Alex ‘talks’ about his latest film role, and the co-star, Dawn Devonport, a bit odd at first, but I can see here that Alex is comparing Dawn to his daughter, and is trying to help her, like he did is daughter (or perhaps like he should have done to his daughter). There are mirrors to his past in his present, and I think Dawn is a mixture of Mrs Grey/Cass to him. I also wonder about Cass as a child and the mental health issues she clearly had from a very young age. Why was this? One could question whether Alex may have had something to do with this, perhaps – this is left open ended, for the reader to make their own minds up about. Her suicide is also dramatic, and the facts surrounding her death sound unexplained. I feel reading this book Alex feels slighted by this act of his daughter, perhaps as if she did it to punish him in some way, maybe? Or perhaps because she did something that overshadowed him, perhaps.

I found it interesting how Banville uses Alex’s memory, and what he remembers of the past, and whether this was a true account of the past, interesting. The issues with the weather and the seasons, for example, could be imagery of Alex’s feelings regarding that moment in time – April – Spring – the start, the beginning of something exciting, Summer – the heat, the passion of an affair, Autumn, the slow ending as the warmth ends, and winter, cold, harsh, depressing. I think it is true, we all look back and remember things differently. One issue I still have though is that I do not believe how Mrs Grey and Alex met, and this is never really explained, and without knowing this, it is rather hard to believe it all ever happened as he says it does. Maybe that is the point as well.

By the end, I think Alex’s memory has been shown not to be accurate, which in turn displaces his confidence, and he starts to question himself more as a person. Finding out the truth about Mrs Grey, and hearing events spoken from another point of view, only adds to his melancholy.

By the end of the book, we know more about Alex, and his past, but in a way, we don’t learn much more either. However I think the journey that Alex goes on through this, is the important aspect. He is coming to terms with his age, his life, the events that have happened to him, and those around him. This is a book about one man’s journey to realise things about himself, and we are just there for the ride. But in the end, I enjoyed it, and it made me think about things such as the past, memories, and what the past means for our future.

As Banville writes, ‘everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past’ – that ancient light that takes years to reach us – that is the point of the book, I think. The past is always with us.

5 thoughts on “Ancient Light By John Banville – Britmums Book Club”

  • There are a few things that I didn’t quite figure out: if Svidrigailov of Cass’s letters is Vander, he would have been very old to have an affair with, or did I get it wrong?

    • Personally I don’t think they were the same person; I think Alex would like them to be as it would be dramatic and tie things together, and give a reason for things, but I think Banville has left this vague so we make up our own minds. But yes, I think he’d be pretty old if he was Vander.

  • a really thorough review! It is so interesting to see so many people didn’t enjoy the book at the start – I was exactly the same and nearly didn’t carry on reading it, but I too was glad I did xxx

    • Thank you! Yes it was a tricky book to get into,but I found the more I read the more intrugued I was about the character, and what he was attempting to achieve through the book.

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