Power, glory and family

2009-05-27 00:00


King of Ithaca

Glyn Iliffe


THE author of this lively novel (the first of a trilogy) is an ex-student of English and Classics, and clearly is geographically, archaeologically and historically well informed about Bronze Age Greece (apart from the strange mention in his Author’s Note of “the prose of Homer”. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey certainly weren’t prose). The book is thus highly vivid in its depiction of the Greek landscape, of weaponry, of infantry combat; and his depiction of characters is arresting and convincing. One is presented with a parade of famous or infamous characters from myth and literature: the stunning but unhappy Helen, a smart and engaging Penelope (Odysseus’s future wife), the calculating Agamemnon, his bitter, intelligent and understandably murderous wife Clytaemnestra, the giant warrior Ajax (before he became a detergent) and several others.

The nominal focus of the novel is Eperitus, a young man driven into exile by a family disgrace and desperate to restore his own honour by winning glory in battle. This makes him a somewhat macho and two-dimensional character, though not totally unsympathetic. But the real interest in the story is Odysseus: that archetype for at least three thousand years of the cunning, resourceful and resilient trickster hero. Interestingly, Iliffe’s novel concentrates on Odysseus’s early career as an Ithacan prince, before the Trojan War (which nonetheless looms on the horizon) and before his famous homeward odyssey through a semi-magical world. He comes across here as genial, immensely powerful, clever and an excellent leader. And although he travels to Sparta along with other chieftains to sue for the hand of Helen, he is intriguingly side-tracked by Penelope, the less glamorous of the eligible princesses but decidedly the most interesting, and their irritable but ultimately committed relationship provides much amusing and intimate interaction.

This is not a great novel but it is a good fast read, full of blood and thunder, ruthless politics, mostly realistic characters, some moments of high drama, all pleasantly mellowed by a certain informality and very down-to-earth relationships.

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