Alexander Cleave is an ageing Irish actor making his film debut, improbably cast in the lead role of a major movie. But this belated plum doesn’t seem of overriding interest to him. Cleave’s consuming concern is the sumptuous memory of his first affair, a giddy, secret relationship when he was growing up in rural Ireland during the Fifties. At fifteen, he enjoyed a heady summer of love with Mrs Gray, his best friend’s mother. It lasted just five months – ‘one hundred and fifty-four days and nights, to be exact’ – but its effects were catastrophic, and have haunted him ever since.
John Banville’s novel is full of hauntings. Cleave’s daughter, Cass, killed herself some years before, and while his wife roams the house in nocturnal fury, he himself feels keenly the unfinished business with his daughter: he has ‘not so much lost as been eluded by a loved one’. Even the