Four years before his 2005 Booker Prize-winner, "The Sea," John Banville's different but no less devastating "Eclipse" introduced us to aging thespian Alexander Cleave and his struggle to cope with the twin horrors of stage fright and his daughter's death. Cleave's torments were chronicled further in "Shroud," a sequel of sorts. Now, almost a decade later, Banville has brought Cleave back in "Ancient Light," and presents him still wracked with grief but also wrestling with deeper, more sensual, and more troublesome recollections from his distant past.
Cleave is holed up in the attic, writing an account of his affair from 50 years ago with Mrs. Gray, his best friend's mother, when he was 15 and she 35. Eager to capture every finite detail ("I must say what I see"), he is nevertheless routinely thwarted because "Time and Memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators ... always shifting the furniture about." Interspersed with Cleave's attempts to pick through "the moth-eaten fabric of the past" are the manic events of his present. His wife sleepwalks the house, convinced their dead daughter is only in hiding. He starts work on a biopic called "The Invention of the Past," about a disgraced literary critic who, he discovers, may or may not have been in the Italian coastal town in which his daughter was last seen alive. Then, in a moment of madness, Cleave and his young leading lady, Dawn Devonport, interrupt shooting and abscond to Italy, she to recover from a failed suicide attempt, he to seek answers to, and closure from, the tragedy of one of his "two lost loves."
"Ancient Light" allows a neat précis, but don't be fooled into thinking a lot happens. If we want plot from Banville we should turn to his alter ego, Benjamin Black, writer of noir-ish thrillers. But though Banville is scant on plot, he compensates with page upon page of luxurious, lyrical prose. We get every aspect of the young Alex's Mrs. Robinson-esque temptress, "of a gender all to herself." Characters and their movements are clinched with evocative imagery: a thin man standing among a group of short girls resembles "one of those poles that stick up crookedly out of the lagoon at Venice"; a priest stirs in the confessional like a horse in a horse-box. If, occasionally, certain passages are not central to the story -- a long dream sequence, five pages on a tramp's appearance, a paragraph about the intricacies of a microscope -- we still relish the articulacy of thought and wallow in the sumptuousness of description.
"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."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.