The world of Homeric epic and Euripidean tragedy is brought sharply to life in British master Unsworth’s gorgeously detailed, astute 14th novel.
An old story: Greek King Agamemnon agrees to a plan to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, a priestess of Artemis, to the goddess’s enemy Zeus, thereby reconciling the deities, and providing favorable winds that will enable Agamemnon’s ships to proceed across the Aegean Sea and wage war on Troy. Unsworth’s cleverly paced retelling focuses on key figures among the Greek militants: the indecisive, suggestible monarch; narcissistic, short-fused Achilles; senile elder Nestor (who had “lost his marbles long ago”); slow-witted extrovert Ajax; and especially crafty power politician Odysseus, whose sinister manipulations of his sovereign include persuading their army’s Blind Singer to insert propaganda messages into his lyrics. The latter’s frequent fatalistic interpolations acknowledge the harsh reality that “it is the stories told by the strong, the songs of the kings, that are believed in the end.” As events thus march toward their predetermined end, the ironies multiply—for, even though the winds have shifted without benefit of divine intervention, Odysseus reasons persuasively that the anticipated spectacle of the princess’s death should not be withheld from the troops, who must be kept together. This subtly fashioned tale compares favorably with Robert Graves’s classically based historical fiction (I, Claudius, etc.), though even readers amused by implied parallels to a potential US invasion of Iraq may raise eyebrows at Unsworth’s profligate use of contemporary slang and Orwellian doublespeak (for example, Odysseus’s warnings that Agamemnon must not be “marginalized” and that Iphigenia needs to be “incentivized”): at odd moments, there’s a Wag the Dog–like waggishness about it all.
Nevertheless, a distinguished companion to such glorious excursions into the past as Sacred Hunger (1992) and Losing Nelson (1999).