The enigmatic confluence of memory and imagination is explored with teasing subtlety in this 11th novel from Banville, the Irish author of such intensely stylized fiction as The Book of Evidence (1990) and The Untouchable (1997).
The narrator and central (indeed, only fully developed) character is Alex Cleave, a middle-aged stage actor who walks away from his current play to return to the house he grew up in, vacant since his widowed mother’s recent death. As if enacting his surname’s contrary meanings, Cleave embraces the past (which visits him in the form of various “ghosts”) while simultaneously sundering relationships with the wife (Leah, whom he has renamed “Lydia”) he has left and the emotionally disturbed daughter (Cass) from whom he had grown increasingly estranged. Banville portrays Cleave as a wary egoist (“I am all inwardness,” he muses) who prefers “appearing” as a player in imaginary people’s lives to interacting with real ones. An unoriginal concept, but the story isn’t clichéd, because this insecure solipsist’s uncertain relation to reality is expressed in finely honed sentences graced by arresting metaphors (a new mother emerges from the hospital “blinking like a prisoner led up from the dungeons”) and refracted through an indistinct fictional texture located somewhere between dreaming and waking. Furthermore, Banville surrounds his protagonist with both hazily remembered figures from his past and such quizzical people as the house’s vaguely menacing caretaker Quirke and its “housekeeper,” Quirke’s teenaged daughter Lily, whose identity becomes confused—as much in the reader’s mind as in Cleave’s—with the troubling remembered image of Cass, which appears to fade in harmony with the total solar eclipse that occurs near the climax.
The absence of a formal plot may frustrate many readers. But for those who hear the music of its elegant rhetoric, the encompassing dark of Eclipse may well seem light enough.