The Power of Myth 

Mesopotamian hero’s epic tale resonates in Gilgamesh: A Novel, which vividly relates the life of a wandering soul in the 20th century

Mesopotamian hero’s epic tale resonates in Gilgamesh: A Novel, which vividly relates the life of a wandering soul in the 20th century

Gilgamesh: A Novel

By Joan London (Grove Press, $23, 272 pp.)

Joan London’s Gilgamesh: A Novel is haunting from the very start. The title calls out to anyone with even a vague recollection of the 4,000-year-old story of Gilgamesh, the warrior king who lived in Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. In her debut novel, London takes on the legend and comes up with a pensive tale of sadness and hope, travel and home. Released two years ago in her native Australia, Gilgamesh is already a fiction prizewinner and has been short-listed for more awards.

Like its namesake, London’s book tracks a protagonist through a series of trials en route to understanding her place in the world. Edith Clark lives an unspectacular, Depression-era existence on a dilapidated farm in the Australian bush. She is so poor that she walks to work barefoot to save the soles of her one pair of shoes, which she shares with her sister. Edith’s salvation, or maybe her curse, comes in the form of a visit from her cousin Leopold and his friend Aram. The two arrive from an archaeological dig in the Middle East, bringing with them tales of adventure and a weathered copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

One night, Leopold begins to tell his cousin the story of the ancient king, who, after losing his closest friend, set out to find eternal life. Long after the departure of “the visitors,” as Edith refers to them, she finds they have taken up residence in her conscience, beckoning her to follow them to far-flung lands. Her journey begins when she realizes her dark-haired, swarthy-complexioned baby Jim will never fit into Australian society. She becomes convinced that the only place for Jim is in Armenia, with his father. The country becomes a Mecca to Edith, no matter how little she knows of it or how impractical her plans. “Armenia had become a landscape superimposed over the hills and valleys around her...,” London writes. “The spire on the Anglican church on the outskirts of Torville was very Armenian, because as you saw it from the bus it seemed to promise something ancient and spiritual.... The delicate morning light was Armenian.”

London is a master of description, creating vastly different environments out of few words, much as a watercolorist might suggest a landscape using only subtle images. She evokes the singular vistas of her homeland as well as a world of spices, silks and samovars as Edith moves from west to east, modern to ancient. Writer and character both must also contend with a world at war, which Edith navigates with amazing luck and instinct.

Gilgamesh has enough historically significant elements to place the story in the late 1930s/early 1940s without turning it into a Ragtime-like parade of events and figures. Edith rides the Orient Express (in third class) and crosses paths with spies; she walks along Soviet-designed boulevards and lives in fear of the secret police. She makes a life for herself and Jim in Soviet territory, and when she eventually returns to Australia, the travel-loving reader can’t help feeling a bit let down. Gone are the furtive border-crossings, hastily arranged passages on cargo ships and chance encounters.

A good read and a satisfying journey, London’s Gilgamesh is full of the spirit of place, as well as the rush of traveling in dangerous times. Its fresh American release seems especially timely and poignant, now that many of the areas captured in the book are in turmoil.

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