Wednesday, January 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

One of my New Year’s resolutions (like everyone else) is to tackle my TBR pile.

Long ago, I decided I should read Ursula K. Le Guin, so I bought Lavinia, which can be shoe-horned into the historical novel category. It sounded like something I would enjoy. Nevertheless, it sat neglected on my shelf. When Le Guin died last year, I meant to read it soon, but it has taken me a whole year to buckle down and read it.

What a gorgeous book!

It could be described as Vergil fan fiction. The story is told by Lavinia, daughter of the king of the Latins, who became the bride of Aeneas at the end of his long journey from conquered Troy. Aeneas is the founder of the Roman people. (Aeneas’ mother was the goddess Aphrodite.) In Vergil’s The Aeneid, Lavinia is a passive character who never speaks. She’s simply there to be claimed. Le Guin gives her a voice.

The novel is written in the first person but is not told linearly. It has a dreamy, otherworldly feel to it, the right atmosphere for mythical people who live very close to their gods.

While on a visit to a sacred place in the forest, Lavinia communes with Vergil, a poet who lived long, long after the fall of Troy, but who comes to Lavinia in a vision as he is dying, to tell her of the poem he is creating – a poem that essentially creates her. She understands her own fictionality. This fictionality makes her immortal, which allows her to tell us her story. Because she has heard the story from the poet, she knows how it will turn out. This time twisting adds to the mythological quality of the tale.

Lavinia is her father’s only living child and they are devoted to one another. (Her mother is another story.) She is obedient and pious. When she reaches marriageable age, she is sought after because she is the daughter of the king. The leading contender for her hand is her cousin Turnus, but the thought of having to marry him depresses her. Fortunately, she learns from her poet that she is destined to marry Aeneas. Unfortunately, she also learns that the peace of her kingdom will be shattered because of this and the war will be terrible. It’s horrible knowledge to have. And yet, the inevitability of what will come to pass gives her strength and acceptance.

Everything happens as the poet foretells. Lavinia knows there is nothing she can do to prevent the tragedy. Moreover, she wants to wed Aeneas. It’s a difficult position to be in because she doesn’t want to be the cause of a war but she is content with the outcome.

Aeneas and the Trojans fight Turnus and Lavinia’s own people, and Lavinia is the prize. The novel does not sugarcoat the horror of the battles and the reader feels it intensely, maybe even more intensely than Lavinia. She’s not detached, but she knows things her people do not. She even knows things Aeneas does not. It’s an odd reading experience because I’m hoping the worst of the poet’s predictions will not happen, even though of course they will.

I love retellings of ancient myths and legends and Lavinia is an example of how to do it with originality and beautiful prose.

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