A brace of books I read in December. Will definitely be reading more in 2014. It’s a resolution!
John Banville is currently one of Ireland’s most successful literary exports, and despite his reputation for writing highbrow literary fiction, it’s easy to get lost in his most recent novel, Ancient Light.
It’s the final part of a loosely connected trilogy (together with Eclipse and Shroud) but you do not need to have read the other two before diving into this one. Alex Cleave is an ageing actor, still mourning the suicide of his daughter, Cass, a decade before. Having worked in theatre for the entirety of his career, he is surprised to be offered his first film role; a biopic of a mysterious academic, Axel Vander, who just happened to be in the same part of Italy at the time of Cass’ death.
But the real meat of the story (and indeed, the story seems to sag slightly at times when we return to the present) is Alex’s recollection of the affair he had with his best friend’s mother at the age of 15.
It would be easy to condemn Mrs Gray for her seduction of a teenager- and indeed, if the genders were reversed, condemnation would be blanket- however Banville does not let us away with such easy moral judgements. Alex unhesitatingly describes the manipulation he undertakes in order to keep her onside. And the secret revealed in the last few pages turns the reader’s perception upside down.
The real star of the show is Banville’s prose. At once elegiac and wry, Banville makes moments vividly come alive. One of the most gorgeous passages in the book shows us a meeting between Alex and Mrs Gray at the seaside, a train’s “soot-black engine[s] venting bursts of steam.”. Banville excels at description; a bat’s flight has “a tiny sound like tissue paper being surreptitiously folded”, a woman on a bicycle dodges the breeze with “all the dash and grace of a trim schooner plying fearlessly into a stiff nor-wester”.
It’s the magic of the prose that overcomes the plot which, on occasion, strays into the unbelievable. The present day narrative, where Alex goes off to Italy with his co-star, the attractive Hollywood actress Dawn Devonport, with barely a murmur from his wife, strains credulity at times. While the dialogue of rural Ireland was spot on, I found it hard to believe that the teenage Alex, living with his widowed mother in the 1950s, would simply stop attending Mass with nary a word. Similarly, Alex and Mrs Gray are extremely lucky. It’s hard to sneeze in rural Ireland without someone knowing, never mind carry on an extra-marital affair for several months- and neither of them are overly cautious.
Minor quibbles aside, Ancient Light is a moving and powerful reflection on the legacy of memory and loss.
Donna Tartt recently came out of seclusion and released her third novel, The Goldfinch. I received this book as a Christmas gift, but I picked up her debut, The Secret History, at the train station on my Christmas journey home. I was lucky to make my stop, because it’s the kind of compulsive, unputdownable story that keeps you reading way past your bedtime.
The narrator, Richard Papen, arrives in an East Coast university determined to shed his ordinary middle-class upbringing in California. Hampden, the college he attends, is wonderfully rendered, as is the scenic Vermont countryside. Tartt has a gift for describing the shift in seasons and nature. When Richard foolishly tries to spend the New England winter in a ramshackle warehouse to save money, ice and biting winds assail the reader from the page.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. By chance, Richard finds himself under the tutelage of the eccentric and charismatic Julian Morrow, a noted classics professor who counts Ezra Pound and TS Eliot among his acquaintances. His Greek class is exclusive, with just five other students; the cold, patrician Henry, the louche Francis, uncanny twins Charles and Camilla, and the bluff, rambunctious Bunny.
The novel starts with Bunny’s death, and Tartt herself has described it as a ‘whydunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’. What could have led to the five killing their stalwart friend? Naturally, things are not what they seem, and there are some very dark secrets festering in the clique.
While the dark-times-at-Ivy-League has been done before (and since, remember that dodgy Joshua Jackson movie?) The Secret History maintains believability at all times. This is a considerable feat seeing as it concerns a gang of misfits obsessed with Greek mythology and devoted to their lecturer. Most college students, after all, spend four years trying to avoid their lecturers and quote Family Guy, not Euripides.
There are lovely nods to The Great Gatsby throughout, not least in the character of Richard, with his Nick-like detachment (but how detached is he really?) and his Gatsby-esque desire to reinvent himself as old money swell. Richard is an interesting narrator; not as much unreliable but fully acknowledging the tricks of memory and the gaps in his own knowledge. He also drops a late bombshell on his own family background, suggesting that there was even more reason to escape to Hampden.
The New York Times described The Secret History as “the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment crossed with the story of Euripides’ Bacchae set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited” but don’t let that put you off. The Secret History is a complex, multilayered story, but it’s also extremely easy to pick up. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to put down.