Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews


John Banville
Picador, Pan Macmillan (Oct 2000) 214 pages
ISBN: 0 330 33933 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

John Banville has a great facility for capturing a character's "voice." In Eclipse he does it so effectively that it is almost a problem, because Alexander Cleave, who tells his own story, is a strange and not altogether likeable man. Alex reveals his self-centredness, his faults and his foibles, all of which are partly mitigated by his sudden shifts in focus from himself to the finely coloured details of his surroundings, and by his appreciation for the poetic cadencies of language. All of this, is an essential part of this man who seems to have lost any sense of his own identity.

In the middle of life, in the middle of a successful career, Alex is suddenly assailed by doubts. More than that, he feels he is being watched, invaded by some ghostly presence. It does not help that he is an actor.

By his own account, Alex lost any strong sense of his own identity at an early age and discovered a facility for adopting masks and for playing parts. In his profession, like many actors, he suffers the terror of playing a part so well that he loses his own self completely. Yet this is not what seems to have happened to him: not what caused him to 'corpse' on stage and to walk out of the theatrical life for good.

His problem seems to be quite different. He sees ghosts and feels presences, some of which turn out to be very solidly human presences but some of which do not. He feels haunted and he feels obliged to withdraw—from his career, his wife, his home, even from his beloved daughter, Cass.

The anxiety and confusion he is suffering is apparent in his account. He is unable to concentrate. His focus shifts between the real and the unreal, between past and present. Gradually we learn more about him and may be tempted to do a little amateur psychology, discovering causes for his condition. There are suggestions that he was never close to his father and that his mother was often unpredictable and odd. It is also clear from his account that Cass, his daughter, suffers from something very like schizophrenia. Maybe there is something genetic causing his disturbance?

In spite of his withdrawal, other people intrude on his isolation and he has not the energy to send them away. They are a minor distraction from his problems and a curiosity to him, nothing more. For the reader, too, they are a curiosity, seen always through Alex's eyes. How, we wonder, do they see him. But the events which eventually overtake Alex are unrelated to this intrusion.

The denouement of Alex's story is tragic, moving and beautifully told. And it forces us to reassess Alex, who emerges from this story as a far more sympathetic and humane character than we may initially have thought possible.


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