Breakdown

Eclipse

by John Banville
Knopf, 212 pp., $23.00

The story of Eclipse follows a bare outline. Its first-person narrator is a world-famous Irish actor. One day—he is in his fifties—he finds himself unable to say his lines on stage and just manages to stagger off. He has felt a nervous collapse brewing for some time. The actor, Alexander Cleave (known as Alex), decides to retreat to the house where he was born and where his widowed mother took in lodgers. It is in a small provincial town, and his wife, Lydia, drives him there from their posh seaside house a few hours away, presumably just outside Dublin. They quarrel (they often do); she is miserable and disagreeable, and that afternoon she packs up and leaves. Later on in the story, she returns.

The house is haunted. Alex senses—almost, but not quite, sees—the presence of a woman and a child. A bit later he discovers two clandestine squatters in residence as well. One is Quirke, a middle-aged office boy from the local firm of solicitors. He is meant to keep an occasional eye on the property, but has surreptitiously moved in together with his dirty, disgruntled fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily. Alex lets them stay, and, faute de mieux, Lily becomes his housekeeper.

Gradually, Alex begins to develop paternal feelings toward her. His real daughter, Cass, the only child of his marriage, is in her early twenties. A misfit and a worry, she suffers from epilepsy and a variety of psychological problems besides. At the time of Alex’s collapse she is in Italy, engaged in a piece of literary research. Lydia receives a telephone message that she is about to return. Her parents expect her, but the next message to come says that she has committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the Mediterranean. She was three months pregnant. Alex and Lydia fly out to collect her coffin, and Alex realizes he has misinterpreted the apparitions: “I was looking into the past, and that was not where those phantoms were from, at all.” They pay him one more visit, only this time the adult ghost is recognizably Cass. The dead daughter and her unborn child are phantoms, not from the past, but from the future.

Alex and Lydia return to their own house, and Alex makes over his mother’s house to Lily, on condition that she will live there and not sell it, and keep a room in it for him to use. And that’s the end.

Reviewing Banville’s previous novel, The Untouchable, in these pages in 1997, John Bayley wrote:

He is not fashionable. Indeed he disregards fashion, even the extent to which most novelists, however independent in their natures and talents, keep an eye on what is “in” or “out,” and are often insensibly influenced by this awareness. He shows no interest in discovering in his fiction who he “really is”; nor does he consciously explore the predicament of a class or a society. Social indignation, or powerful statements about …

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