Wednesday, October 21, 2009

REVIEW: Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Published 2009 by Mariner Books. Literary Fiction.

I picked up Lavinia at Readercon, a science fiction/fantasy literature convention I attended this past July; this was my first time at Readercon and I wasn't expecting to buy anything at this very popular and informative event, but then again although Ursula K. Le Guin is an established fantasy author (her Earthsea series is practically required reading, or so I'm lead to understand), Lavinia is neither fantasy nor science fiction. Instead, it's about as literary as literary fiction can be- a midrash on Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid, from the perspective of Lavinia, Aeneas's second wife, who is barely mentioned in the poem itself but who here is given a life and a voice of her own.

It's a little jewel of a novel, starring an intelligent young woman of royal lineage and bearing. As the novel opens she is of marriageable age and will soon have to end her days of running through the woods with her best friend Silvia, sister of the man whose death will eventually start the great battle ending in Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas. In the mean time, Lavinia is being offered up as the bride of Turnus, a macho hero-type not-so-secretly in love with Lavinia's mother, Amata. Amata wishes the marriage to keep Turnus close to herself. Lavinia finds Turnus repulsive and bargains with her father, the king Latinus, because she knows her fate is to marry Aeneas.

And here is where Lavinia reveals itself to be not just beautifully crafted literary fiction but metafiction, because Lavinia is aware of her status as a literary creation. She meets with Virgil in the woods, talks to him about what's happening to her, about what will happen to her. She's knows she's part of the poem, and that Virgil has written her life- and that he has left so much out, and she says, even got some of it wrong:
My poet could tell how heads were split and brains spattered armor, how men witha sword in their lungs crawled gasping out their blood and life, how so-and-so killed so-and-so, and so on. He could tell what he had not seen with his mortal eyes, because that was his gift; but I do not have that gift. I can tell only what I was told and what I saw.
Le Guin plays with historical accounts of events in the Aeneid as she, for example, contradicts Livy's account of Latinus's death during the war; in her version, he lives on into old age. I'm not enough of a classics scholar to tell you why she does things like this, but she does, and it's interesting, and I'd love to know what other people think. But even putting that aside, I loved Lavinia as gorgeously written, absorbing and fascinating literary fiction. I wish every book were like this; I'm very, very glad to have found it and I'm sure I'll be back for more Le Guin someday soon.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

22 comments:

S. Krishna said...

I have wanted to read this book ever since it first came out, and your review has only made me want to read it more. Great one!

King Rat said...

Have you read Atwood's Penelopiad? Similar kind of construction.

Marie said...

King Rat- yes, and I wasn't as taken with it.

iwriteinbooks said...

I love the concept of this book. I've had it bumping around in my bag for a WHILE and need to just have done with it already. :O)

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a book I would love! Thanks for the review.

Jessica said...

Great review - this looks like something I would love - it's on my To-Be-Read list!

jewwishes said...

Your wonderful review has wet my lips. I have seen this book, but yet to read it...

Booklogged said...

Great review. You've got me adding another book to the TBR list.

Nicole said...

I read and loved one of Ursula Le Guin's childrens books and bought this one after that experience. Sound like I made a good choice.

Charley said...

This sounds interesting, although perhaps I should read The Aeneid first.

Blodeuedd said...

I saw this one in the library..but not in my language or English. Still I was intrigued. I am glad it lives up to what I thought first

jp jacquel said...

I always find the idea of a dialogue between narator and character exciting and, after reading your post, I'm quite ready to read the book. But, as you've guessed yet, I'm not that good an english reader so do you think this book to be accessible or too difficult?

Marie said...

JP- I'd give it a go. It's sophisticated writing but it's not inaccessible or difficult.

jp jacquel said...

Thank you so much. Jean Paul.

Nymeth said...

I'm so glad you loved it as much as I did, Marie. I agree that this is better than The Penelopiad. That was actually my first Atwood, and it took The Handmaid's Tale for me to fall for her. Anyway, I actually think of this as fantasy still, mostly because of the bits involved Virgil and because of how the story is framed - what we find out on the final scene. Can't say more without spoilers!

the heart is a lonely reader said...

LOVE LeGuin. She's been one of my favorites since I read Lathe of Heaven in my first year of college. Ever since then, I've pretty much assumed everything she's released is fantastic.

I will have to pick this one up.

Alexia561 said...

This book sounds fascinating, and I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it before but it's on my to-buy list as of now! Thank you so much for a great review!

Wasn't aware of Readercon either, so feel like I've been living under a rock or something. *L*

Marie said...

Alexia-I was never aware of Readercon until I married my scifi nerd husband, so don't feel bad :-)

Amy said...

I am very sorry to say I have never read any Ursula LeGuin and it sounds like I really really need to.

-Amy
Life by Candlelight

Mike B. said...

I loved this book when I read it a year or so ago and even last week I was recommending it to a co-worker. I've had some difficulty with The Left Hand of Darkness but Lavinia was brilliant.

Zibilee said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. I particularly like that you mention that she is aware of herself as a character in literature and reacts to that. I have read other great reviews of this book and think that it sounds right up my alley, although I am not terribly familiar with The Aeneid.

Cara Powers said...

I just posted my review. I don't read reviews of books I'm planning to review on my own blog or before I link to them from my blog, so when I popped over here I was so happy to see we agreed. Lavinia is fabulous. It is genre defying.