Ancient Light

Ancient Light, John Banville

If you’ve read John Banville’s Booker-winning The Sea, you will find in his latest book, Ancient Light, several distinct echoes. The older man looking back on a certain period of his boyhood; the infatuation of the young boy with an older woman. This is a theme that obviously intrigues Banville. Here the parallels and echoes are so strong that it almost begins to seem as though in the earlier book he was preparing a sketch to be ‘fleshed out’ later. So close in fact are some of the details – the wilful curl of hair, the fleck of tobacco on the lip, the gaze up the skirt – that one starts to wonder about autobiographical input.

Somewhat strangely, Banville professed not to have realised that Ancient Light might form the third part of a trilogy, along with Eclipse and Shroud, until the question was put to him in a recent radio interview. And indeed it does not depend in any way on either of those two, forming as it does a complete whole in and of itself. While other trilogists of the moment bang out their ephemeral fantasies on their submissive keyboards with nobody much questioning the shabby ‘message’ on offer, there will be those who will take issue with the depiction of the sexual relationship between the 15-year-old boy and the 35-year-old woman at the heart of Ancient Light. Here though, there is level upon level of meaning, of imagery, of language, none of it reducible to a single soundbite or cover blurb. (The Sebastian Barry quote that did find its way onto the cover is most peculiar: “Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Perhaps in its original context it reads as more sincere.)

If some of the themes have been sounded before, they are themes always worth revisiting, and Banville’s prose on this occasion has reached new heights, is like clear spring water on a hot day: refreshing and restorative.

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