Wednesday 3 July 2013

Book review : Ancient Light - John Banville

I'd heard of author John Banville as winner of the 2005 Man Booker prize for The Sea but never read any of his work, so when his novel Ancient Light was picked as last month's read for the BritMums Book Club, I was keen to see what I'd think.

I'm a very eclectic reader, as happy reading chick lit as I am crime fiction, and I couldn't decide which genre I would place Ancient Light in - I would plump for the rather broad "literary fiction" category. It is a book that could appeal to readers of both sexes and all ages, relying more on carefully honed prose rather than fast-paced action or great emotional impact to keep the reader's interest.

The most important event in the book is a passionate affair between a married 35-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy, who - to make matters even worse - happens to be her son's best friend. Set in 1950's Ireland, I was expecting fireworks - a huge scandal when it became public knowledge, the backlash against the woman for her lack of morals and corruption of a minor, the breakdown of the friendship between the boy and his best friend ... It ended up being a bit of a damp squib though. The pair do eventually get found out but there are apparently no consequences for anyone involved and it all just fizzles out without drama.

The book is narrated by the young boy, now an ageing actor harking back to the key moments of his life (including his affair with Mrs Gray) half a century later. It is interesting to see how his mind plays tricks on him, condensing his memories and mixing up the chronology, so that the weather, for example, seems to follow his emotions rather than the logic of the seasons.

The affair is described from the point of view of an inexperienced boy, discovering passion, love, jealousy and heartache for the first time, so it is hard to imagine the motivation of the married mum of two. Perhaps the fact that I am a teacher of teens makes it harder for me to condone or imagine embarking on an affair with a minor. The rather poignant final scenes, when the now grown-up daughter of Mrs Gray divulges some information about her mother at the time of the affair, does go some way towards explaining, if not justifying, her behaviour.

Mrs Gray is just one of the women to have marked Alexander's life though - there is also his mentally unstable daughter for whom he is grieving, a fragile actress that he is performing with and taking under his wing, and the no nonsense theatrical researcher who ends up being his unlikely ally in his quest to rediscover his lost love, the enigmatic Mrs Gray. I couldn't help but feel sorry for his wife, who seems to have no real bearing on his life, at least in terms of emotions, and just blends into the background !

It's a slow read, that comes across as a fictional memoir. We follow the man's evolution from self-centred lusty teen to grieving parent searching for closure and finally more mature gentleman, achieving understanding and empathy. I was expecting more to be made of the historical setting - 1950's Ireland was a morally strict and righteous place to be so more could have been made of this - but the story actually appears to be timeless and universal and could be set in any time or any place.

It's not a book that kept me up at night turning the pages, desperate to know what happened next, but it is a thought-provoking look at one man's journey from boyhood to adulthood.

star rating : 3.5/5

RRP : £8.99

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (28 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0241955408
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241955406

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Book review: The Dead - Howard Linskey


  1. Yes, it is very thought-provoking, and I'm glad I read it. Beautiful prose, even if the plot and the main characters are difficult to relate to.

  2. Nice review. Opinion in the book club was really divided on it. Interesting to hear your thoughts as someone who works with teens.

  3. Nice review. Opinion in the book club was really divided on it. Interesting to hear your thoughts as someone who works with teens.

  4. The lack of historical context was one of the things that annoyed me about the story. As you said, it appears timeless, but the being set in 1950's Ireland is what attracted me to reading it. I couldn't finish it so can't comment on the book as a whole but agree on the lack of historical connection. Although I guess that goes with the 'memory' theme of the story (which I didn't really get, giving up on the book 1/3 of the way through!)

  5. Added to me to read list!


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