Ancient Light, By John Banville

Memories of trangressions, erotic idylls, and Irish times past

Many of John Banville's customary concerns are present in this bedazzling new novel: memory and invention, questions of identity and make-believe, names and aliases, transgressions and transformations.

The book adds a further, dense layer to the already complex and intertwined narratives of Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002). The protagonist of Eclipse, Alexander Cleave, takes centre-stage again in Ancient Light, while Axel Vander, the demonic deconstructionist and central presence of Shroud, gets a posthumous form here as the subject of biography and accompanying film, in which the actor Cleave (rehabilitated following his dramatic onstage failure of memory in Eclipse) is to take take the principal role.

It adds to Ancient Light's impressive intricacy that the two imposing old men are already connected through Cleave's dead daughter Catherine (Cass). And it adds to the playful element of the book that Vander's "biographer" should be known simply as "Jaybee" (JB), and be mocked by Cleave for the opulence of his literary style, which calls to the actor's mind Walter Pater in a delirium. Banville is not averse to self-mockery or, indeed, to a notably mellifluous manner.

Alexander Cleave is the narrator, and everything in the book is filtered through his consciousness. The novel is virtually without dialogue. In the present, Cleave is still mourning his self-destroyed daughter, and forging a subtle relationship with his leading lady in the Vander film, Dawn Devonport. However, the novel's main drift is to recreate the past, in particular of a small town in Ireland where Cleave grew up. At 15, he is plunged into an overwhelming love affair with his best friend's mother, 20 years his senior: Mrs Gray.

Mrs Gray is something of an enigma, with her motive for seducing so young a boy only disclosed, or suggested, in the final pages. Alexander, however, is a wholehearted participant in the erotic idyll - "beyond an adolescent's maddest imaginings" - which spans one stupendous summer, and is played out in a derelict house in the woods, or on the back seat of the Gray family's battered station wagon.

What the illicit pair get up to is evoked half lyrically, half comically, and with all the grace and aplomb we expect from this author. Cleave does not look back with affection in his younger self: all the sulks and storms peculiar to his age group are rehearsed. Banville makes us undergo, with his characters, the anxiety of discovery, with the inevitable bad end written in to the unsettling beginning. Ancient Light is not concerned to convey the sociological realities of small-town Ireland in the 1950s; rather, at its core is a moment out of time, though universal in its implications, and intensely remembered, while at the same time taking account of all the memory's lapses, tricks and stratagems.

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