New this month: John Banville’s “Ancient Light” and the fantasies of young men

In his new novel, “Ancient Light” (Alfred A. Knopf), John Banville does what he’s always done best: Gives us a brooding narrator with an evocative, meaning-laden name and a past in need of unraveling. And don’t forget the lyricism. Always there’s lyricism. There must be lyricism.

We meet Alexander Cleave (there’s the name, suggesting some inner turmoil, division), his troubled daughter, and his memories of his youth. Those memories include his teen affair with an older woman, and that’s all I want to center on now. When you’re caught in the middle of countless distractions, when your mind is cluttered, a little dose of Banville clears the mind. Restores focus. Reminds you of the possibilities of language again.

As in the following lyrical reflection about Cleave’s desires as a young man, and his youthful inexperience:

I knew precious little about girls–and consequently the little I knew was precious indeed–and next to nothing about grown women. At the seaside for a summer when I was ten or eleven there had been an auburn beauty of my own age whom I had adored at a distance–but then, who in the honeyed haze of childhood has not adored an auburn beauty by the seaside?–and a redhead in town one winter, called Hettie Hickey, who despite her less than lovely name was as delicate as a Meissen figurine, who wore multiple layers of lace petticoats and showed off her legs when she danced the jive, and who on three consecutive and never to be forgotten Saturday nights consented to sit with me in the back row of the Alhambra cinema and let me put a hand down the front of her dress and cup in my palm one of her surprisingly chilly but excitingly pliable, soft little breasts.

Banville captures an entire kind of experience in a single paragraph: an incredibly difficult feat he makes seem effortless. A memory of youth that acquires a mythic aura in the adult narrator’s mind. And for me it was that phrase “honeyed haze of childhood” that refreshed me, just when I needed it.

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