March 22–29, 2001
Over the Moon
Eclipse is out of this world.
By John Banville
Knopf, 212 p., $23
Alex Cleave is a man beset by many demons, including, in no particular order of appearance, his failed career, his fiftieth birthday and the wandering of his mentally unstable daughter, Cass. He is also haunted by the ghosts of his grumpy wife, still very much alive, and of his long-dead mother.
Eclipse, Irish author John Banville’s latest miniature masterpiece, is about mortality and our increasingly tenuous relationship with it as we age. From the first page, readers will be shaking their heads in wonder at the lush fluidity of the prose. By the last, those same heads will reel at the sheer Lear-like tragedy of it all. And in between you will make innumerable visits to the dictionary shelf, as if to catch an illicit glimpse of Banville’s love affair with the written word.
Cleave, a famous actor and a cunning linguist, has forgotten how to recite his lines. As the nightmare goes, it happened right on stage, mid-performance — though he doesn’t forget his lines, only how to translate them into speech. The curtain drops mid-performance, in the flashback, and our story begins.
Banville picks it up with Cleave leaving his wife behind and going to live in the house in which he grew up. He becomes a stranger in his own childhood village and a ghost in his own crumbling house, the one in which both of his parents died and — paging Dr. Freud — his mother’s presence sits in the pit of his stomach like a piece of bad seafood. He hears noises, sees things: people, shapes. Ghosts.
He soon learns that the caretaker, the rough-around-the-edges Quirke, and his daughter Lily, a joyless teenager reminiscent of Cleave’s own daughter, have been surreptitiously living in the house all along, and may or may not be responsible for the distractions. Cleave isn’t thrilled to have them around, but he doesn’t ask them to leave either. His relationship with Lily becomes the book’s most absorbing facet. She becomes, sometimes in turn and sometimes all at once, his Lolita, his Goneril and his filthy-footed squatter.
Then the circus comes to town — an unnecessary jump-starter for the plot — and Cleave’s wife arrives with news of their daughter, which she refuses to share. No way this review is going to spoil what comes next. Let it suffice to say that you must experience the subtle beauty of Banville’s storytelling for yourself. He’s a master, always perfectly in control of his pitch and pace. Not all of his characters breathe as well as Cleave, but that’s only because the story is told from his perspective. Eclipse is a short, engrossing and wonderful read unlike any to come along so far this year. It’s one you will live with for a long time, for better or for worse.
John Banville will speak Thu., March 22, 8 p.m., The Free Library of Philadelphia, 19th and Vine Sts., 215-567-4341, $12 adults, $8 students.