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Ancient Light Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 2, 2012
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The Amazon Book Review
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*Starred Review* Settling into a meditative retirement, stage actor Alexander Cleave finds himself writing about the summer he was 15 and embroiled in a mad and taboo love. He much prefers recalling the wildness of his insistent young self than dwelling on the unhappy life and inexplicable death of his enigmatic daughter. Following the mischief of The Infinities (2010), Banville’s breathtaking new novel is defined by light, from the “ancient light” of the stars to the glimmering fool’s gold of memories. As Alex tries to pin down the uncomfortable truth about his delirious, risky affair with his best friend’s mother, he reflects on how all his desperate lies ultimately helped him become an actor. His lush if dismaying reverie is interrupted by an out-of-the-blue invitation to star in an American movie, a biopic about, of all subjects, a vile critic whose life may have some vague link to Alex’s daughter’s death. Banville, a writer of exquisite precision and emotional depth, writes with droll inquisition and entrancing sensuality in this suspenseful drama of the obliviousness of lust and the weight of grief. Alex’s misremembered love story and complicated movie adventures are ravishing, poignant, and archly hilarious as the past and present converge and narrow down to a stunning revelation. Banville is supreme in this enrapturing novel of shadows and illumination. --Donna Seaman
“A devastating account of a boy’s sexual awakening and the loss of his childhood . . . Seamless, profound, and painfully true to the emotional lives of his characters, it is an unsettling and beautiful work.” --Wall Street Journal
“A slyly constructed and stylistically buoyant novel . . . The ending [is] shattering and genuinely surprising.” --New York Times Book Review
“Banville perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body of yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion. . . . [He] is a Nabokovian artist, his prose so rich, poetic and packed with startling imagery that reading it is akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline: it’s a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured. . . . . This is a luminous, breathtaking work.” --The Independent (UK)
“Ancient Light is a brilliant meditation on desire and loss, which also skillfully reminds us, even warns us, that ‘Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler’ . . . [Contains] page upon page of luxurious, lyrical prose.” --Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Beautiful . . . Banville is the heir to Proust, via Nabokov.” --The Daily Beast
“Luminescent . . . Illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating . . . Breathtaking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears. The Stockholm jury should pick up the phone now.” --The Financial Times
“Banville’s prose, as gorgeous and precise as in his 2005 Man Booker winner The Sea, evokes scenes so that they burn in the reader’s mind.” --Sunday Express (UK)
“A breathtaking new novel . . . Banville, a writer of exquisite precision and emotional depth, writes with droll inquisition and entrancing sensuality in this suspenseful drama of the obliviousnessness of lust and the weight of grief. Alex’s misremembered love story and complicated movie adventures are ravishing, poignant, and archly hilarious as the past and present converge and narrow down to a stunning revelation. Banville is supreme in this enrapturing novel of shadows and illumination.” --Booklist (starred)
“A world where the past is more vivid than that present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living. . . . startlingly brilliant.” --The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“The prose of the new book has a kind of luxuriant beauty, and, given the number of gorgeous arias written in difficult keys with many sharps and flats, the novel has the feel of a feverish atonal chamber opera . . . It’s as if the prose has shouldered the entire burden of undoing death and loss, an ambition rarely seen in contemporary letters. One reads Ancient Light in a state of slightly stunned admiration and disbelief that anyone still believes in literary art sufficiently to call upon its resources for these particular ends.” --New York Review of Books
“Banville, with his forensic sensory memory, his great gift for textural (and textual) precision, his ability to inhabit not just a room, as a writer, but also the full weight of a breathing body, is exactly in his element here. . . . Cleverness is on display, and nothing might be quite what it seems, but Banville’s duty of care, to the emotional lives of his characters, to the worlds in which they live, is not neglected for a moment.” --The Observer (UK)
“Ancient Light dazzles . . . It is a work of commanding artistry, each scene exquisitely realized in burnished prose. . . . Banville’s unmatched descriptive artistry [fixes] every fleeting moment and sensation mind with painterly precision . . . haunting beauty.” --The Scotsman
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As usual, the plot of this novel is easy. Alexander Cleave is an aging theater actor who gets an opportunity to star in a film alongside a young, beautiful, troubled young woman, Dawn Davenport. But the main focus of Alexander's attention is his memories; two, in particular. First, is his recollection of his first love affair when, as a boy of fifteen he spend a summer being seduced by and bedding Mrs. Gray, the mother of his best friend. Second, is his struggle to understand his daughter, Cass, who struggles with illness and eventually commits suicide.
What is brilliant about this novel--apart from Banville's high-level prose that avoids his tendency towards odd vocabulary--is that it takes as its theme the individuality of the mind and the tenuousness of memory. This is seen in one way through the inability of Alexander to understand his daughter (and her stand-in, the young Dawn). More interesting, though, is his exploration of his memories of his pubescent affair. The way the seasons change, the way action takes place in the "wrong" setting, the way moments occur out of order (and Alexander's recognition of all this) bring a tension to the relationship between "fact" and "truth"; especially when Alexander gets a second perspective on his memories in the closing pages of the novel. It is a beautiful build throughout the novel to a strong climax.
Banville's last novel, The Infinities, was a bit of a disappointment; mainly with its plot, which is very difficult to take. This time out, however, Banville is back in highest form. It is one of his best novels and that includes his Booker Prize-winning The Sea.
Many other fine reviews here quote Banville's affecting prose, as it is the only way to convey to the reader why this novel, along with his other work, is so sui-generis. Here, again, is our narrator contemplating the heartache he felt during the adolescent amour whose narration constitutes half the book:
"I will say this for suffering, that it lends a solemn weight to things and casts them in a starker, more revealing, light than any they have known hitherto. It expands the spirit, flays off a protective integument and leaves the inner self rawly exposed to the elements, the nerves all bared and singing like harp-strings in the wind."
Whosoever has not felt exactly like this at least one time in his or her life need read no further, and need not bother with this book or Banville, or Shelley, for that matter.
No, I shall not describe plot. As in all Banville novels, nothing happens - except in memory and imagination, except in what we are pleased to call "life", that is. Towards the end, our narrator wonders of himself that, "I seem to myself to move in bafflement, to move immobile, like the dim and hapless hero in a fairy tale, trammelled in thickets, balked in briar."
Don't we all seem to ourselves so, if only at times? All one has to do is to stop and to wonder, and remain so.
Ancient Light is full of this beautiful, sometimes terrible wonder at ourselves.
Most recent customer reviews
* descriptive writing
Of the 12 of us, one really liked it.Read more