Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The lost books of the Odyssey

When reading Zachary Mason's debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, don't try too hard; much like swimming in a strong current, it's best to just relax and let the words take you where they will. Don't look for a chronological story line or consistency from chapter to chapter, just enjoy the prose.
Mason has taken the bare skeleton of Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus, king of tiny Ithaca; overbearing Agamemnon; a pointless war; a wife and son left behind - and crafted dozens of fragmented stories that reimagine the way in which Troy fell, how Odysseus found his way back to Ithaca and what happened when he arrived.
The most interesting of these tales are the ones that play with the motivations and behavior of the characters: Penelope becomes a half-feral queen who drags the palace into licentiousness during Odysseus' absence; Paris is actually Death, and the goddess Athena contrives with Odysseus to destroy the kingdom of Death on earth; Odysseus is not a clever warrior, but is instead a wily coward who sneaks off the battlefield and disguises himself as a wandering bard who eventually creates the legend of Odysseus through his songs.
Each chapter is a little tale onto itself, and the language is almost hypnotic. Fortunately, we also have this as an audiobook, and the narrator - Simon Vance - has a wonderful, expressive voice (you may know him from the Patrick O'Brian series, or The Girl Who Played With Fire). This book can be nibbled at in small pieces, as each chapter gives you something to think about. And you don't even have to be a scholar of Homer to appreciate the stories....

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