Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review of John Banville and Benjamin Black

Banville and Black.
Published in Books Ireland, September 2012.
By Sue Leonard.

In January, I spent a night at Stansted Airport. I’d missed my Ryanair connection, and opted against finding a hotel. I felt sure I’d survive the sojourn. I’d just started my advance copy of John Banville’s Ancient Light. The first few pages had me so entranced, that I was certain the novel would keep me, excellent company, until my early morning flight. And so it proved.

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother,’ must surely, be one of literature’s most tantalising first lines. He goes on, in his usual, scintillating prose, to analyse what that word love means. The narrator imagines resuming the rapturous affair he enjoyed with Mrs Gray, now that he is in his sixties, she in her eighties. This morphs into an inner dialogue about memory; about its frailty, and the randomness of the images we conjure into our minds.

Banville has written about love before. Memory is another familiar theme. Fans have met the narrator, actor Alexander Cleave, in Eclipse. They know, from that novel, and from Shroud, that Cass, the Cleave’s only daughter, drowned in mysterious circumstances. They know that she suffered from a particular brand of epilepsy that left her unhappily vulnerable. It’s not necessary to have read these novels to enjoy this one, but the link gives this exceptional novel added resonance.

I’ve not been a wholehearted admirer of Banville. His Booker Prize winner, The Sea, left me irritated and unmoved, but this novel held me in awe. There are many, unforgettable images. The first, of a women on a bicycle, appearing to the young Alexander with an erotic ‘fizzing of tyres,’ appears on the second page. But it’s the description of Cleve’s wife Lydia, sleep walking in a frenzy, that continues to haunt me. Driven mad with grief for her daughter, she becomes convinced, in sleep, that Cass is in the house, trapped, and needing rescue.

The start of the novel sees Cleve in self imposed retirement. Then Hollywood comes calling, offering him a part in a movie opposite the troubled star, Dawn Davenport. She attempts suicide, and confides in Cleve, as they analyse the prospect of death.

These scenes juxtapose with the those of that early affair; and Banville has the egocentricity and arrogance of the teenage boy nailed. I loved the playfulness of these scenes, and the way they portray the absurdity of desire. The affair ends with discovery, shame and scandal. Or so Cleave’s memory would have us believe.

And where, does Axel Vander, the writer Cleave is portraying in the movie, fit in to all this? His name is familiar to Cleave. Cass had mentioned him. Is he implicated in any way to the drowning of his daughter? Some of the confusion is cleared up by the close of the novel, but there are a few open ends to keep us guessing.

Although he is addressing dark themes, Banville’s novel is full of light and of humour. A second reading proved an even more rewarding experience than the first one. With its combination of readability and superlative poetic writing, Ancient Light is as close to perfect as a novel can be.

Banville started writing crime novels under the name Benjamin Black back in 2006. The author says that, as Black, he writes quickly, and that he considers the books craft, whereas his Banville books are art. But the books have much in common. Black might be less poetic than Banville, but the writing still shines, with some beautiful tableaux, and superbly described visual scenes.

Vengeance is Banville’s sixth novel as Black, and like its forerunners, it features the troubled pathologist, Dr Quirke.

Victor Delahaye offers to take Davy Clancy, son of his business partner, out sailing. Davy hates the sea, and is reluctant to go, but his family has always bowed to the Delahaye’s commands. Once at sea, Delahaye tells Davy a long winded story about his childhood, then, producing a gun, he shoots himself in the heart.

Enter Detective Inspector Hackett and his friend Quirke, who try to unravel the mystery. There are hints of fierce family rivalry. The womanising Jack Clancy, in particular, is known to have been running himself into trouble, but the cause of the suicide is still unclear when there’s another death at sea. This time, though Quirke suspects it’s a murder.

He’s already interviewed everyone in both families, and has deduced that there’s little more happiness within each family than there is between them. Indeed, he’s already been seduced by the newly widowed Mona; a spoilt beauty whose every move seems calculated. She seems scarcely moved by the death of her husband, and has a penchant for mischief; enjoying stirring up conflict and leaving chaos in her wake.

As for the Delahaye twins; the spooky blond Jonas and James, who are rarely ever apart, they would seem to have a motive for the murder, but they also have an alibi. Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and her boyfriend, who is Quirke’s assistant, saw both the twins at a mutual friend’s rowdy party on the night of the murder.

It doesn’t take much insight to guess the identity of the murderer. It’s not much harder to guess why the deed was done, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this novel. What it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and character.

I loved the slow, measured pace of this novel, and the lack of urgency and clock watching, as the characters, often meeting by chance, converse in dingy bars, or over a hotel lunch. I was fascinated by the heavy drinker Quirke, too, for his quick mind and his foibles.

Banville has been asked, in interview, if his writing as Black has influenced the way he writes as Banville. He has said he doesn’t know. But certainly his writing as Banville has lent a depth and added perception to this book of crime.

© Sue Leonard 2012

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