© Ursula K. Le Guin.
This novel is based on the last six books of The Aeneid, the epic poem by Vergil which follows the life of Aeneas of Troy, from the battle in that doomed city through his wanderings across the Mediterranean and the eventual founding of a new kingdom on the eastern shore of Italy. But instead of focusing on the warrior, the story is told from the viewpoint of the young woman of that area, known as Latium, daughter of the old king when Aeneas arrives, and eventually Aeneas’ wife. I must admit I’ve never read the poem, but apparently Lavinia’s role in it is minor and non-speaking. Le Guin has imagined a well-developed life for her in this book, and along the way she uses her skill and imagination to give us a window into that ancient time unlike any I’ve encountered.
That would be enough to make a fine book, but Le Guin also plays with metafictional ideas by bringing the poet Vergil himself into the story as a sort of spirit guide for Lavinia. They meet in a holy spot, the poet and his creation, and another fascinating level is added to the narrative.
Through Lavinia’s eyes we see the rough and tumble life of the times, with pagan gods and rituals, power struggles, personalities both admirable and tragically flawed. While the epic poems, including the one this is based on, often involve the gods and other magical beings as players, this story keeps them at a theoretical distance. While there is the feeling of Le Guin fantasy here and there, it’s more of a human and historical tale, beautifully and naturally told. The men fight their heroic battles, while the women do their best to hold a fragile civilization together amid the chaos. Lavinia herself is a major player in that struggle, and there is plenty of drama for her and her friends. Even for readers like me who haven’t read the original poem, she keeps us and Lavinia aware of the tragic arc of the story through the use of Vergil and his knowledge of what will happen to her and Aeneas. Not enough to spoil the plot, but creating that background tension and unease that helps drive and inform the narrative.
Another masterpiece from a great master of literature. Highly recommended.