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Eclipse by John Banville

Eclipse
by John Banville
Knopf
224 pages, $23.00

Some writers trumpet every trick. John Banville is of a higher order. His graceful and precise prose, laced with apt and exquisite metaphors, so perfectly conveys its meaning that it calls little attention to itself. The reader is struck more by the truth of what he says than by the cleverness with which he says it. This is not to suggest, however, that his words don't sing. Here, for instance, the narrator describes lying apprehensively awake just after the birth of his daughter: "Triangles of watery light from the headlamps of passing motor cars kept opening across the ceiling only to be folded smartly again and dropped, like so many ladies' fans, into the drawer where she was asleep."

Unfortunately, in Eclipse the superb writing has to carry the story pretty much alone. Banville has chosen an intellectually compelling idea in exploring the struggle of an actor who discovers that he has never realized himself. Alexander Cleave returns to his childhood home "to locate that singular essential self ... that must be in hiding, somewhere, under the jumble of discarded masks." But such a quest requires so much self-absorption that not even the most interesting ideas and extraordinary writing can save it from becoming tedious. Ghosts and dreams visit Cleave, as he works his way toward an enormous sorrow, but the reader longs for substance. Cleave tells his wife that he is content in his childhood home, because "it offers me a way of being alive without living"; and that, alas, is exactly how one feels inside this novel.

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