Between the Bindings: John Banville’s Ancient Light

by Jim McKeown


Ancient Light is the final book in The Cleave Trilogy and is narrated by aging actor Alexander Cleave. In his Minneapolis Star Tribune review, Malcolm Forbes called it “a brilliant meditation on desire and loss.” Its events take place ten years after the second book, Eclipse, where Cleave’s daughter Cass dies. She’s a main character in Shroud, the trilogy’s first entry, where she threatens to expose a decades-old academic scandal.

John Banville has long been one of my top favorite writers. His stories are detailed, enthralling, sometimes comical, but always serious. His 2012 novel, Ancient Light, promised to be another absorbing story of love and heartbreak.

The story begins with two friends: Billy and Alexander. Banville writes: 

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word, but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five. Such things are easily said, since words themselves have no shame and are never surprised. She might be living still. She would be, what, eighty-three, eighty-four? That is not a great age, these days. What if I were to set off in search of her? That would be a quest. I should like to be in love again, just once more. We could take a course of monkey-gland injections, she and I, and be as we were fifty years ago, helpless in raptures. I wonder how things are with her, assuming she is still of this earth. She was so unhappy then, so unhappy, she must have been, despite her valiant and unfailing cheeriness, and I dearly hope she did not continue so. (3)

As I read this first paragraph, I was stunned. I read it again, and yet again. I resurrected a secret passion about older women, so I was determined to see this story to the end.

The story continues: 

What do I recall of her, here in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year? Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realizing it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and grand dissembler. When I look back all is flux, without beginning and flowing towards no end, or none that I shall experience, except as a final full stop. The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage—and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck?—may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random: representative, perhaps compellingly so, but random nonetheless.” (4)

As I finished the second paragraph, my intense involvement in this story drove me to finish this enthralling story to find its ending at all costs of time, including repeating a numerous collection of segments that drove me on.

Celia Gray is a character who floated in and out of the story, but the narrative forced my memory to hold on to her. Banville writes:

Her name was Celia. Celia Gray. It does not sound quite right, does it, that combination? Women’s names never sound right in my opinion. Is that they all marry the wrong men, or at any rate men with the wrong surnames? Celia and Grey make altogether too languid a coupling, a slow hiss followed by a soft thud, the hard g in grey not half hard enough. She was not languid, anything but. If I say she was buxom that fine old word will be misunderstood, will be given too much weight, literally and figuratively. I do not think she was beautiful, at least not conventionally so, although I suppose a boy of fifteen could hardly have been called on to award the golden apple; I did not think of her as beautiful or otherwise; I fear that, after the initial gloss had gone dull, I did not think of her at all, but took her, however gratefully, for granted. […] For our doings together were pervaded throughout by a faint, a very faint, sickly religiosity. (8-9)

The explanation of this young girl’s appearance had the slightest importance in the story.

The last paragraph closes:

Mrs. Grey and I had our first—what shall I call it? Our first encounter? That makes it sound too intimate and immediate—since after all it was not an encounter in the flesh—and at the same time too prosaic. Whatever it was, we had it one April day of gusts and sudden rain and vast, rinsed skies. Yes, another April: in a way, in this story, it is always April. I was a raw boy of fifteen by then and Mrs. Grey was a married woman in the ripeness of her middle thirties. Our town, I thought, had surely never known such a liaison, though probably I was wrong, there being that has not happened already, except what happened in Eden, at the catastrophic outset of everything. Not that the town came to know of it for a long time and might never have found out had it not been for a certain busybody’s prurience and insatiable nosiness. But here is what I remember, here is what I retain. (31)

A priest gets wind of the goings-on—albeit a rather elusive attempt to “save the boy’s soul.” Banville continues:

When Alex came home from school that day, he knew from his mother’s expression he was surely in deep doodoo. […] I was marched into the kitchen, the place where all domestic crises were tackled, and where now it quickly became clear my mother did not care what it was I had done, and was only angry at me for being the cause of Father Priest’s breaking in upon the tranquility of a lodgerless afternoon while she was at her sums. My mother had no time for the clergy, and not much, I suspect, for the good they represented either. She was if anything a pagan, without realizing it, and her devotions were directed towards the lesser figures of the pantheon, St. Anthony, for instance, restorer of lost objects, and the gentle St. Francis, and most favored of all, St. Catherine of Siena, virgin, diplomatist, and exultant stigmatic whose wounds, unaccountably, were invisible to mortal eyes. “I couldn’t get rid of him,” she said indignantly, “sitting there at the table slurping his tea and talking about the Christian Brothers.” (60-61)

Nothing better than when a lioness defends her cub.

Some may be appalled by this story. But I took refuge in its unusual love story that reminded me of past encounters as a young boy accepting a slightly older woman, and all the warm and loving memories that went along for the ride. John Banville’s Ancient Light is delightful—to my mind!—and a tale I will never forget.

Jim McKeown, a lifelong voracious reader and long-time English professor who recently retired from McLennan Community College, hosts the weekly book review program Likely Stories on KWBU, Waco’s NPR station.

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