On Gilgamesh by Joan London

I’m about halfway through Joan London’s Gilgamesh and toying with writing something on Goodreads. Just now I scrolled through the reviews to read what others were saying but stopped when I realised there were over 1,800 of them. I really only have one word to add – bleak.

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And I realise much of the bleakness comes not from the story itself but from an absence of emotional reaction on the part of the main characters, along with a paucity of introspection. As is typical of much Australian writing the feeling in the story is embedded in the action as the main character, Edith, goes through the motions of her difficult life. She isn’t the responsive type and I’m left feeling empty.

The story is straightforward. In 1937, on a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, Ada. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the farm.

Alongside the myth of Gilgamesh, there is a motif of perversion running through the narrative, stated almost in passing in the most matter-of-fact manner. It’s a motif that evokes revulsion and a sense of doom. 

Overall the narrative is restrained. I think the idea behind this style of storytelling is that the reader is free to have their own emotional reactions, unimpeded by those of the characters. The downside is that the characters are more like automatons. The rich roundness of their beings duly muted in the rendering, they are at risk of appearing one-dimensional.

In it’s favour I have to say that the narrative is superbly crafted and poised, the prose elegant. Gilgamesh is definitely a book I would recommend.

Well, that was more than one word!

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