BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin (Gollancz)


Title
: Lavinia
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Pages: 304
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Release: Out now in Hardback
Publisher: Gollancz

Synopsis

‘Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn’t be given, wouldn’t be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous, the fate obscure; not a bad balance.’ Lavinia is the daughter of the King of Latium, a victorious warrior who loves peace; she is her father’s closest companion. Now of an age to wed, Lavinia’s mother favours her own kinsman, King Turnus of Rutulia, handsome, heroic, everything a young girl should want. Instead, Lavinia dreams of mighty Aeneas, a man she has heard of only from a ghost of a poet, who comes to her in the gods’ holy place and tells her of her future, and Aeneas’ past . . . If she refuses to wed Turnus, Lavinia knows she will start a war – but her fate was set the moment the poet appeared to her in a dream and told her of the adventurer who fled fallen Troy, holding his son’s hand and carrying his father on his back.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

This is going to be a strange opening to a review but bear with me. If I see a film of a book it’s unlikely that I’m going to read the book. Why? Because I know what happens. I’ve seen the journey of the characters. What else is there to discover?

I’m more likely to see a film of a book because I’m investing only a few hours to see how faithful the film is or at least how it has chosen to reinterpret the material.

And because of this I have problems with retellings of history especially if I know how the events have played out.

Lavinia is a first person retelling of the last six books of Vergil’s Aeneid. It is a ‘meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in [Aeneas’s] story’.

And there are lots of merits like the voice of the narrator who manages to be factual, retelling events, but adds that dimension of humanity that are missing from older stories, which focus on the facts of who did what to whom.

Though Le Guin does a far bit of that. She has long paragraphs recounting who is supposed to kill who and when and in what order. And as endearing as Lavinia and her fate is it is hard to feel any compassion or sympathy for her as her fate is sealed and mostly foretold. Lavinia herself is made aware of events through the visits with the poet himself, which are the most powerful scenes in the book for me and where Le Guin shines

As an exercise in breathing life into an epic poem, giving it life and clarity it’s a brilliant achievement. Le Guin manages to add that missing spark and the story is compulsive even if you think you know what is going to happen.

But that compulsion can only go so far for me. I did tire in end. I couldn’t see what else I was going to learn about the characters. I think it does probably come down to the style that it’s retold in and my aversion to history. Long list like descriptions or she does more telling than showing.

And as well crafted as it is it didn’t end up drawing me into the story of Aeneas and Lavinia as much as I thought it would.

I do have a curiosity for the Aeneid though I think that I’d need someone else to breath life into it for me.

BSFA Thoughts

It’s curious. I think Le Guin needs commending for breathing life into a dead tale and raising curiosity. But I’m disappointed by the limitations of the tale she was retelling. You can feel her wanting to stand up more for the character, waiting for her to take charge and not being able to.

Though on the other side people are going to enjoy the fact that she brought new life and managed to read between the lines and bring out all the nuisances and details that she has done.

It could well win but would need a lot of fans of that sort of thing to support it.

Summary

Overall, I found it hard to overcome my need of fantasy and reinvention over history and recreation. It’s an interesting exercise and character study but I’m afraid that it failed to lift Lavinia totally to life. She still feels too trapped in the page that she feels like she is being narrated rather narrating herself.

But Le Guin needs to be commended for her skill in recreation and reinterpretation that is likely to give pleasure to those that like these kind of tales.