Ruth's Reviews > Ancient Light

Ancient Light by John Banville
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Apr 03, 2013

really liked it

You might be sitting over a meal with Alexander Cleave, or, as he does at a point in the book, sitting in a darkened hotel bar in the middle of the night listening. He's telling his life story. He's telling it with wonderful panache. Every paragraph holds a gem of poetry. He is a raconteur, as befits an ageing Irish actor. He's a bit of a tease, too. Was it spring? Did I see her on a bicycle first? He is the ultimate unreliable narrator. And what is more, even his unreliability is unreliable as we learn the 'facts' of the matter, if there are 'facts' to be learned. Which is more or less the essence of the novel. It's about memory and it's about how we form memories around ourselves, our judgements, our experiences. The links we might see in events, and there are many links between Alexander's early life and his present, are not external but formed from our own narratives about ourselves. If this applies to all lives can there ever be an objective truth about what happened, and whether it happened when the leaves were falling? Alexander is an impractical type, and perhaps prone to embroidery of the truth, and there are more down-to-earth cast members in this novel, yet whether even they speak the truth can also be called into question.

Alexander recalls his affair with his best friend's mother at a time in his life when he was on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Of course he was mightily self-absorbed. If he was going to lack the objective view at any time it would be when fifteen, and in love. The affair is never prurient; it is described with humour and warmth. The fabric of experience is described vividly - what it seemed to be like. The prose is wonderful. Without burdening the reader with description, scenes open out through telling detail, even the walls have ears; the surroundings and random objects have meanings and, sometimes, malevolence. And present events, which don't come to much, and which I won't spoil, shadow the recent and far past in his life.

As I say it doesn't come to much. There isn't any clear resolution to the novel, although some facts become known, and spark the supply of certain other facts from Alex. This isn't a novel for those who like their endings neat. Or their beginnings. But it is a fine story from a fine storyteller.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 3, 2013 – Shelved

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