Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Love Artist by Jane Alison

The Love Artist by Jane Alison is a gorgeous, lyrical historical novel about Ovid and his mysterious muse, Xenia.

Ovid is a classical Roman poet best known for "The Art of Love" and "Metamorphoses." About the time he was writing "Medea," a play of which only two lines survive, he was banished by Augustus Caesar to Tomis, on the western side of the Black Sea. The end of the world. His crime is not recorded but since his exile lasted until his death, it must have been significant.

Alison imagines the artist’s biography from this time, filling in the historical blanks by creating a relationship with an exotic, beautiful witch, Xenia.

After "The Art of Love," Ovid is not in the stoic Augustus’ good graces. His friends urge him to absent himself from Rome until things blow over, to help ensure the success of his new work, "Metamorphoses." Ovid sails across the Black Sea to the Caucasus. There he meets Xenia.

This young woman has grown up among strangers, so is always an outsider. Her earliest memory is of being cast out to sea in a basket by her mother to die. Xenia is raised by Phasians (an ancient Colchian tribe, according to Wikipedia) and learns to read, to heal, to tell fortunes, and to cast spells. She’s a witch, but that isn’t a bad thing. She knows who Ovid is. She reads his poetry. When she hears he has arrived in her town, she lures him to her.

The magical lure is probably unnecessary, because Ovid grew intrigued by her even before the spell after catching an accidental glimpse of her. Or maybe that was part of her spell. He begins stalking her even as she bewitches him. Before long, they become lovers.

The prose is dreamy and soft-edged and beautiful. Ovid is inspired by Xenia. As he studies her, his next work flows from his stylus. She knows he’s using her in this way, but it doesn’t frighten or annoy her (as it did a previous love of his.) Xenia wants to become part of his art. She knows Ovid’s words will make him immortal and she wants his words to immortalize her.

Ovid realizes it’s time to return to Rome. He needs Xenia to come with him. Xenia realizes Ovid is getting ready to leave, and she casts a spell to make him ask her to follow him. Thus far, they are working towards a common purpose, but there is mutual insecurity and desperate dependence going on, too. Once they arrive in Rome, things get nasty. Xenia is not thrilled with Ovid’s social whirlwind and the many women who occupy his sphere. Ovid realizes he can use her jealousy to his art’s advantage.

Ovid needs a patron and finds one in Julia, the embittered grand-daughter of Augustus. He begins manipulating Xenia’s suspiciousness and jealousy so that he can transform it into his art. Xenia is both aware and unaware of what he’s doing. They are completely entwined with one another’s lives, but they no longer trust each other. Ovid delves deeper and deeper into the dark psychology of the play he is writing, one with a horrific ending, and is urged by Julia to finish what he has started.

The novel is short and builds slowly, but the final chapters are riveting. Ovid is so self-absorbed, and so desperate to believe that his work will live on after he dies, that he starts to seem mad. Either that or evil. Or both. And Xenia will either succumb to his mad plotting or she must find a way to break free.

I could not put the book down until I knew how it would play out.