In this deeply moving and original book, John Banville alloys mystery, fable, and ghost story with poignant psychological acuity to forge the riveting story of a man wary of the future, plagued by the past, and so uncertain in the present that he cannot discern the spectral from the real.
When renowned actor Alexander Cleave was a boy living in a large house with his widowed mother and various itinerant lodgers, he encountered a strikingly vivid ghost of his father. Now that he’s fifty and has returned to his boyhood home to recover from a nervous breakdown on stage, he is not surprised to find the place still haunted. He is surprised, however, at the presence of two new lodgers who have covertly settled into his old roost. And he is soon overwhelmed by how they, coupled with an onslaught of disturbing memories, compel him to confront the clutter that has become his life: ruined career, tenuous marriage, and troubled relationship with an estranged daughter destined for doom.
Banville's stunning novel achieves a gradual impact; the reader only realizes the full extent of the author's mastery in retrospect. The Irish fictionist's narrative is essentially a five-act soliloquy, a monologue through which fifty-year-old actor Alexander Cleave reflects upon his troubled existence: Cleave has been proceeding under the illusion that the world orbits around him, until he fears that he has no depth of identity beyond the roles that he plays. After freezing onstage in the middle of a performance, he retreats to his abandoned childhood home, where he mulls over the deaths of his parents and the disintegration of his marriage. For a man so theatrically self-absorbed, a retreat into solitude isn't necessarily the best remedy, yet Cleave soon finds himself with some ghostly company. Doppelgangers, perhaps? "You are your own ghost," his wife warns. It isn't until tragedy takes Cleave outside himself that he comes to terms with his life. As Cleave realizes that he is little more than a bit player within the mysteries of life and death, the reader discovers dimensions to Banville's novel that transcend the prison of one man's psyche.