Lavinia: A voice and a story for Lavinia

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Ursula Le Guin LaviniaLavinia by Ursula Le Guin

“It’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.”

Lavinia, wife of Aeneas, is silent in Virgil’s Aeneid. In the novel Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin gives a voice and a story to this nearly obscure figure.

I loved the prose from page one. Le Guin’s skill with the English language is unquestionable. Here’s a sample from early in the novel:

Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn’t be given, wouldn’t be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous, the fate obscure; not a bad balance.

The concept behind Lavinia is more complicated than you might think. It can on one level be read as a reexamination of myth from the female perspective, and fans of that type of novel will definitely want to give Lavinia a try. But there’s something else going on here too. Le Guin is playing with the idea of storytelling, and the nature of stories, and how stories take on lives of their own. Le Guin’s Lavinia, in her youth, meets a ghostly version of Virgil and speaks with him at length. Thus, she knows she’s a character in a story. How much free will she possesses, and how “real” she is, are constant questions. (Virgil has a bit of an identity crisis of his own; he has shadowy “memories” of his own stint as a fictional character in Dante’s Inferno.)

However, these questions don’t trouble Lavinia as much as they might trouble a person born and raised in modern times. In Lavinia’s time, the Fates are believed to shape a person’s destiny, and major decisions are never undertaken without consulting an oracle. Lavinia’s situation is unusual, but she’s able to adjust to it. After all, she’s been raised with the idea that forces outside herself are pulling the strings.

Speaking of Lavinia’s time, Le Guin does a great job of bringing pre-Roman Italy to life. Lavinia’s culture is strange and foreign to us, but also recognizable as one of the roots of the more-familiar culture of Rome.

And yet, with all these interesting ideas packed into Lavinia, and despite the fact that I’m a voracious reader of historical fantasy whenever I can get my hands on it, I was never grabbed by this novel. I never carried it around town with me, or glanced at the clock at quitting time thinking “Just ten minutes till I can go home and read some more of that book!” I kept reading, because I was intellectually curious about what Le Guin would do with her themes, but Lavinia never quite clicked with my right brain.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because of the aforementioned free will issue; despite Lavinia’s insistence that she chose her man and her fate, she was really choosing between two fates that were both mapped out for her by other people. Maybe it’s weird pacing; there are long stretches where not much happens and other passages where a decade passes in a flash. Maybe it’s just an inexplicable mismatch between book and reader.

The moments I enjoyed best were the beginning; the haunting, contemplative end; and the moment in the middle when the poem’s events have ended but Lavinia’s life goes on.

I give Lavinia five stars for prose and concepts, and three stars for that intangible “did it suck me in?” quality. Four stars, then, as a compromise.

Lavinia — (2008) Historical fantasy. Publisher: in The Aeneid, Vergil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word in the poem. 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 a muddy village near seven hills. Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry 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 notlive long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to make her own destiny, and she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life. Lavinia is a book of love and war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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