Pleasure with Punch

Book
Ancient Light
John Banville
2012

Damn, John Banville is good.

His books are, quite simply, always exactly the right words in exactly the right order, spun together with effortless pizzazz. Damn.

His latest novel, Ancient Light, is a variation on a theme – like many of his earlier offerings, it features an older man sifting through his memories, bringing together the various threads of his life to a devastating finish. Captured in a writing style renowned for its poetic quality, the smallest details of the everyday are illuminated with such skill that they become as breathtaking as a sucker punch to the jugular.

At its core, Ancient Light is about two major events in the life of the ageing Alexander Cleave: the clandestine affair between his fifteen-year-old self and his best friend’s mother, and his daughter’s suicide many years later. Cleave’s life story touches every emotional pole: it is heartbreaking, bitterly funny and refreshingly sensual.

Recently, a wild, frothing-at-the-mouth craze for romantic fiction has led to the rise of easy erotica, a genre that predominantly features two cardboard cut-outs pining moodily for each other between bouts of dry humping and light emotional abuse.

These books are, unfortunately, a trade-off, where the opportunity for enjoyment depends entirely on your ability to sit back and let your libido repeatedly bitch-slap your brain.

As it turns out, we can have our cake and eat it too – Ancient Light is proof that a novel can be both sexy and smart. It can’t be classified as smut by a long shot, but Banville’s work weaves a story of stolen, forbidden pleasures and obsessions.

However, unlike E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which was written with the grace of a collision between a semitrailer and a freight train, Ancient Light delivers titillation without the accompanying urge to gauge one’s eyes out with a spork.

Where James’ writing style provokes the desire to set yourself on fire (not figurative, passionate fire but the searingly painful, makes-you-forget-the-horrific-dialogue-you-just-read-because-your-are-literally-being-consumed-by-scorching-flames kind of fire), Banville is a true and elegant wordsmith, weaving thrilling stings of sensuality into a body of vivid but vulnerable prose. His eroticism is subtle and delicately-assembled, and Ancient Light is peppered with all the confusions, excitements and startling intimacies of real-life sex.

This complexity is Banville’s speciality. Much popular fiction today presents mildly upstanding but ultimately hollow characters who serve as empty shells onto which we can project ourselves. Ancient Light moves in the opposite direction, evoking Alexander’s narrative voice so strongly that the character inhabits us as we read.

As a result, we feel both his past and present with astounding power. His fifteen-year-old heart pumps erratically in our chests the first time his older lover gives him a lift home; we squirm through the memories of his boyish fumbles and faux pas; we feel the ache of his nostalgia and grief as a man in his mid-sixties, combing through his memories for something, anything.

The sensation of reading one of Banville’s novels is akin to the feeling of putting on glasses after years of short-sightedness. At first, some things feel too close, too in-focus, and you question the need to see the world in such detail, but then, as you acclimatise, everything is imbued with a sudden clarity and intensity that makes you wonder how you never tried this before.

Ancient Light is the full package – beauty and brains, sex and sophistication, pulled together by an author who has been acknowledged by many as the master of his art.

Damn, John Banville. Damn.