Thursday, July 5, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf

Halfway through the year, I’m sadly behind on my challenges, except for the Historical Fiction Challenge. So, I thought I’d better pluck a dusty book off my shelf and check one off Mount TBR hosted by My Readers Block.

We’re supposed to do a quarterly check-in, so this post includes my progress report- a sad 5 of 12 books. (I even set my sights low and I’m not half-way through. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to accumulate books faster than I can read them!) To see the books I’ve read and links to reviews, click on the badge on my sidebar. And now, onward:

After reading Ransom by David Malouf and falling in love with the author’s writing, I hustled out and bought An Imaginary Life, certain I would sit down and read it at once. That was at the end of 2010.

An Imaginary Life follows the many thoughts and relatively few actions of the first century Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) after his exile to a tiny village on the Black Sea for some obscure offense to the emperor. The "uncivilized" people of the village are hunter/gatherers who don’t speak Latin. At first, Ovid is plunged into despair by his isolation, inability to communicate, and lack of all things familiar. The landscape is too barren to be of any comfort. He’s trapped inside his own mind and the reader is there with him. That isn’t to say that the writing is not beautiful–it is. His thoughts are lofty. But compared with the high tragedy of Ransom, Ovid’s road to self-discovery was not as emotionally engaging for me.

He does reach a crisis. When on a hunt, they come across a feral child, about ten or eleven years old. Ovid has a dream-like memory of this child. Has he seen him before, in his own nonverbal toddlerhood? He insists that the Child must be rescued. His companions are not as motivated. They fear the feral boy as part beast, part man, and part evil spirit. They believe that if Ovid succeeds in taming the boy, the wild beast/spirit will claim another member of the community. Ovid has no such superstition, but it turns out there is reason for fear.

The conflicts between superstition and rationality, civilization and barbarism, man and nature, are explored with images that are stark one minute and lush the next. It is a short book that nevertheless takes you on an elaborate journey encompassing a richly lived life. If you’re looking for some philosophical down time, this is a lovely book to savor. But if I had to choose only one Malouf book, so far I would vote for Ransom.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sadly behind on my TBR challenge, too! Just remember you still have half the year left so you have lots of time to catch up :-)

    Great review for An Imaginary Life. I'm going to have to add it to my list.