Book club: Discussing “Ancient Light”

ancient light john banvilleOur latest book is Ancient Light by John Banville. Book Club hostess Jacqueline Steward starts us off on the discussion below. Read what she thought about the book and join in. 

Taking part in the BritMums Book Club with Penguin is a great way to score a free copy of new books, read along with a group of fellow bloggers and discuss what you loved (or hated) about them in the comfort of your own home.

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Discussing “Ancient Light” by John Banville

Well, how did you find Ancient Light?

The (Un)reliable narrator – Alex Cleave

I don’t think it’s really until you become a parent that you distinguish the power and failings of memory. Perhaps it’s through tiredness, multi-tasking or a sense of acceptance that we don’t all interpret events/conversations the same way.

Alex Cleave’s account of his affair with his best friend’s mother is heart-breaking in some ways and the damage it caused him, his best friend Tom and of course Mrs Gray, his 35 year old lover. Did I feel uncomfortable reading his account? You bet. Recent events have meant every evening news bulletin has been peppered with coverage about alleged sexual abuse at the BBC during the 1970’s with once respected TV “personalities”. What is the difference between older men establishing sexual relationships with young girls and older women  with 15 year old boys? I don’t have any firm answers for this. I think the thing is as you become a parent you learn that it becomes more difficult to judge people quickly even when they’re characters in a  novel. What was Mrs Gray doing and why? Even if  she knew she was terminally ill was it the most prudent route to take? The risk in 1950’s Ireland for exposure was huge and potentially catastrophic.

There are beautifully written episodes but in the main Alex Cleave the narrator is a bit of a bumbler in terms of grandiose prose and too often full of his own self-importance. Banville’s interpretation of an established retired actor/performer’s seeming self-absorption  is hardly complimentary but very believable. The allusion to light tells us that we are not going to get the whole picture anyway no matter how hard we try to find it.

As the third novel in a sequel it left me wondering what tricks were played on us the reader and whether more had been played on Alex Cleave. Was his memory serving him to soothe his ego/general life history or the pain of his alleged greatest love? The journey back to 1950’s Ireland is written in a dream-like, questioning state making me feel I was immersed in that time. Were his memories a useful distraction from the distance in his marriage from his wife caused by the heart – breaking suicide of their vulnerable daughter? Why did he accept the  role of the character Axel Vander for a major feature film? He knew the real Vander had been with his daughter close to the time of her death. Particularly when  he was also possibly responsible for her decision to take her own life. Cleave means to stick to/adhere or separate and both happened to him  in different relationships while trying to find out what happened to his daughter before her death. The similarities between the fragile Dawn Davenport and his own daughter were chilling.

Jacqueline StewardFor me, the book was beautifully written and poetic in parts  but I found the notion that the narrator was potentially unreliable through both  narrative strands: one with Mrs Gray, one searching through his current life quite troubling.  I also found I had more questions as the book unravelled. Who was the shadowy night porter/mysterious hotel guest? Should I have paid more attention to them? What did the mining allegory mean? Was the production assistant a device to allow us more information about Alex Cleave?  I finished the book with more questions than when I’d started. Did you?

Look forward to hearing your thoughts  about Ancient Light and don’t forget to post your link below for us all to read. Next month’s title is again, very different from the first two it’s Julie Otsuka’s  The Buddha In The Attic. It’s been highly praised and again offers a very different perspective looking at Japanese Mail-Order Brides brought over to the US  in the interwar period.  A couple of BritMums have friends descended from this community so can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

We have 100 copies available to BritMums Members with UK Postal addresses on a first come first served basis. Please sign up here. Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask on the forum or DM me – I look forward to reading what you thought of Ancient Light.

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  1. 01 July 2013 / 19:36

    Posted the link to my review, as you can see (if you read it, don’t feel you have to) that this really wasn’t a book that worked for me. I very rarely stop reading a book because I’m not getting on with it but this came close. I found the concepts fascinating, well, the idea of them could have been but I didn’t enjoy the way they played out.
    I also don’t think the references to Banville being like Nabokov ring true, for me at least.
    I didn’t get on with Alex at all, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I’ve read plenty of fantastic books where I’ve hated the protagonist but sadly Alex just bored me!
    Oh well, there’s my thoughts 🙂

  2. 02 July 2013 / 17:04

    I’ve posted my review! I didn’t like the book initially but I read on, and I really enjoyed the last half of the book. I think as Alex’s memory and bravado fade, he becomes more of a real character. I wasn’t so sure that Alex’s daughter really did meet Vander, and thought this was more left to the imagination, and perhaps some of Alex’s wishful thinking. I loved the way memory was used, and how it changes, and how his memory reflected his mood at times rather than the truth (such as his descriptions of the time of year). I love the way that not everything is answered, that things are left in the air, as that is ‘life’, that is ‘real’, we do not always find out the answers, and some things remain a mystery. I would like to read the other books now to find out what they are like.

  3. 04 July 2013 / 20:32

    As I couldn’t get into this book and didn’t finish it, I gave it to my Mum to read as she is a big reader and I knew she would stick with it! Here is what she thought…

    It was quite hard going but I did enjoy it. It was a bit like reading a book for English Lit at school. It was quite poignant and moving, don’t think I would rush out to read another one of his.