Stalled on a dark stage

<i>Eclipse</i> by John Banville (Picador, &pound;15.99, 214pp)
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The Independent Culture

Actors are not just the purveyors of metaphors but the source of them. From "centre-stage" and "understudy" to "waiting in the wings", the stage supplies familiar figures of speech. But the actor's primary metaphoric role is that of the inauthentic man: one who deals in borrowed emotions; who is unable to make contact with his inner self. It is this sense that John Banville draws on for his latest novel, Eclipse.

Actors are not just the purveyors of metaphors but the source of them. From "centre-stage" and "understudy" to "waiting in the wings", the stage supplies familiar figures of speech. But the actor's primary metaphoric role is that of the inauthentic man: one who deals in borrowed emotions; who is unable to make contact with his inner self. It is this sense that John Banville draws on for his latest novel, Eclipse.

Alexander Cleave is an acclaimed actor in an unnamed country, which not only the author's nationality identifies as Ireland. He has been undergoing a series of mental disturbances: "Lately I had been finding it hard to understand the simplest things people said to me, as if what they were speaking in were a form of language I did not recognise." The apparition on a winter road of an indefinable animal, too big for a weasel, not big enough for a fox, persuades him to return to his childhood home. There, like Alice - another character enticed by an animal - he is plunged into a topsy-turvy world.

He quits the stage in mid-performance and leaves his wife, Lydia. He returns to the small town where his mother ran a boarding-house in the hope of retrieving some sense of authenticity: "I am weary of division, of being always torn."

The return home is not as healing as he hoped. He is assailed by the ghosts of his past: memories of his parents; of his first loves, a boy who lodged with them and an older actress; and of his courting of Lydia. More disturbingly, he sees a trio of incorporeal figures: a woman with "an even more indistinct child" and, intermittently, a man. His attempts to identify them prove unconvincing. "Is that the future trying to speak to me... among the shadows of the past? I do not want to hear what it might have to say."

Alexander is also forced to confront more tangible intruders in the shape of Quirke, his nominal caretaker, and Lily, his 15-year-old daughter. Quirke is the novel's most intriguing character - Dickensian, with his monosyllabic name, lowly legal profession and ingratiating manner. As Quirke foists Lily onto Alexander as a maid and takes up residence with neither permission nor apology, the stage seems set for a struggle between an ineffective employer and a canny retainer. But, as with so much else in this frustrating book, it fails to materialise.

The future is indeed trying to speak to Alexander, but what it has to say proves unexceptional: the apparitions are revealed as premonitions of the deaths of his disturbed daughter Cass, and her unborn child. The news of Cass's suicide reaches Alexander shortly after he has attended a circus with Lily and claimed her as his daughter. The significance of this - along with another animal figure, a clown who resembles a cartoon fox - remains unclear.

Cass's life is eclipsed; the novel takes place at the time of last year's total eclipse - but Banville's purposes are its most opaque feature. The struggle of a fractured mind to retain its grasp on reality can constitute a rich source of fiction - witness Waugh's Gilbert Pinfold - but Cleave is simply too commonplace a figure. His theatrical background, notably a triumphant American tour from a man who has never made a film, rings so false that at first I took him for a fantasist. He may be the "thinking man's thespian" but his thoughts, notwithstanding Banville's felicity of expression, are predictable and banal.

Far too many arbitrary memories extend what might have been a charming short story way beyond its natural length, to a lame conclusion. It is ironic that a novel that makes so much of fantasies and phantoms should itself be so insubstantial. Coming from a writer of Banville's stature, Eclipse is a deep disappointment.

Michael Arditti's novel 'Easter' is published by Arcadia

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