Reasons for reading: I've had it for ages and I remembered that it was supposed to be good
Lavinia – a character that got no lines in the Aeneid, just a brief mention, but I guess it intrigued Le Guin enough that she put Lavinia as the sole narrator of this novel, and I'm glad it is so.
It is clear from the very beginning that Lavinia is a retelling of the story of Aeneas and how he came to Italy, just from another point of view (so there will be no spoilers in this review ;). What I found amazing was that nonetheless, Le Guin managed to make this 'old' story not only interesting, but also very touching.
Lavinia is an unusual POV for this retelling; I'm more used to retellings where a new light is shed on an old, existing protagonist, which is not the case here. However, Lavinia's POV was a good idea, since she is not only a lively (and sometimes stubborn) character, but also a princess, which puts her into a great position to introduce her father's kingdom to the reader. Through her eyes, we are effortlessly introduced to how life in Italy was before Rome was built, and even if the pictures Le Guin paints us are not completely faithful (she herself admitted that she has downplayed the primitivism of the early Italian settlers), the narrative is masterfully done – in some novels, I had to struggle with long descriptions and paragraphs of world-building, but in Lavinia, the world simply grows around us as we read.
Lavinia tells us a story about a woman's life, whereas in Aeneid, the protagonists are mostly male – as the world of Aeneid is a male world. Where the recurring themes of Aeneid are hardships of war and travel, the prevalent theme in Lavinia is (however corny it might sound) love. At first, this is not obvious; Lavinia, too, focuses on skirmishes that take part when Aeneas comes to Italy and later, when his son rules in Alba Longa. Lavinia reminisces on the years of her youth before the war, on her meetings with the poet, her creator, who uncovers some of her future and asserts her that his poem will remain unfinished. She describes the war, too, but doesn't tell us much about the fighting; rather, she tells us about the decisions, relations and mishaps that, together, caused the war to happen as it did. The narrative is often interrupted with fragments of Lavinia's life with Aeneas, but these are very brief; the three summers and three winters that were promised to Lavinia and Aeneas pass all too quickly and Lavinia becomes dependent on her stepson's decisions while raising her only son.
It slowly becomes clear, though, that Lavinia's three years of happiness were what really determined her and her life. Even though she is always strong, independent and quick to act, she stays emotionally bound to Lavinium, the city Aeneas built her and the place he was buried, and the the sacred place, Albunea, where she met the poet. After Aeneas' death, Lavinia describes in detail how she wilfully stole her son from under his stepbrother's influence, but as he grows to a young man, the narrative becomes less and less detailed, until it simply skims over the remaining events of Lavinia's life. As promised, Lavinia never dies as she lives along with her poem; at the end of her human life, she transforms into an owl:
I fly among the trees on soft wings that make no sound. Sometimes I call out, but not in a human voice. My cry is soft and quavering: i, i, I cry: go on, go.
Only sometimes my soul wakes as a woman again, and then when I listen I can hear silence, and in the silence his voice.
Lavinia is a remarkable heroine; Le Guin brings her, her land and her people to life not only with masterful world-building and carefully constructed characters, but also with excellent prose that practically sings to the reader. This story about a strong woman and her fierce love is easily one of the best books I've read in 2010.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011