In the Aeneid, Vergil’s hero, a refugee from Troy, fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was just an obscure, muddy village near seven hills.
Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until she turns eighteen and the suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry her cousin, the handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. She is visited by Vergil as an oracle, experiencing a kind of time travel. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life which she lost only too early.
What I liked:
First, the idea to present ancient Rome at its very beginning, when it practically didn’t exist as a town, let alone a country, fascinated me. I haven’t read Vergil’s the Aeneid but I was roughly aware what it is about and I wanted to find out more.Le Guin made the obscure world of Bronze Age Italy a place one can feel and taste, a place where the influence of oracles and gods is clearly felt and people live in full accordance with nature and its forces. It is obvious the authoress did a lot of research concerning the daily life and early religious beliefs of proto-Romans and she created a very believable vision of their world which I enjoyed.
The narration was slow and a bit detached but with that mesmerizing, very reflexive, watchful quality of a fairy tale. Overall not unpleasant but still not fully satisfying…ok, you can finds my complaints below.
The main heroine, Lavinia, is also a huge asset here – she goes from meek, unquestioning, submissive maiden to someone who learns to stand up for herself and her child and lead others. She can be called a kick-ass heroine, for sure; she is determined to make her own choices but also fully aware of her own ficitionality.
What I didn’t like:
It is not exactly a fault but I felt that you cannot read this novel and fully appreciate it without having read Vergil’s poem; what’s more, you really ought to have read it recently. Although I knew the outlines of the story of Aeneas sometimes I had to stop reading and remind myself about some details. So be warned: LeGuin’s book is less a novel than a commentary in unconventional because fantasy-scented form. If you haven’t heard about Vergil, Troy and/or Aeneid, you might feel a bit lost.
Also, having read books with very complicated, dynamic plot lines previously I wished for two things reading Lavinia: more action and more linear narration. I must admit there was very little plot and you got flashes from the future in between. No surprising twists and turns in this one – something which took off the edge, making me less eager to finish this book because I (and the main heroine as well) had been told what would happen even before the action was actually described. I kept waiting for the climax and somehow I missed it.
Finally I would like to see more of Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro), apparently a poet with an interesting biography.
This was still a very fine, intelligent piece of work, and a pleasure to read, definitely encouraging me to try other LeGuin books.