John Banville’s Ancient Light is a trip through a hall of mirrors, where memory unfolds into memory and is scattered into a thousand angles, each one staring back in lurid detail. It’s all source material for our narrator Alex Cleave, retired actor and now memoirist. But for him, for us, the material source of the images he recalls is the most elusive thing in the world.
Through Cleave’s narration, we shift among three time periods—two viscerally remembered and one presently lived—and all the women who have mattered in his life. The first is Mrs. Gray, his lover, him at age 15 and she at 35, and the mother of his then-best friend. Their tryst is recounted in striking detail, vivid to the point of upstaging his present. But when Cleave is unexpectedly cast as the lead in a film along with megastar Dawn Devonport, the present begins to claim more of his attention, while drawing increasingly close to his past. As Cleave stacks one crisp memory on top of another, the edifice of his story begins to quiver beneath the weight.
Recipient of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Banville is peerless in his steadfast precision of language. Ultimately it is his masterful, high style prose that makes Ancient Light shine.