Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ransom - David Malouf

You don’t have to have read Homer’s Iliad to appreciate David Malouf’s short novel Ransom.

While it provides a companion piece to Homer’s epic tale, it works just as well as a stand- alone novel, thanks to Malouf’s well drawn characters and poetic prose.

Ransom provides a back story to an event that features only briefly in Homer’s poem: that of Priam, King of Troy, asking for the body of his slain son from the Greek warrior Achilles.

In Malouf’s imaginings, Priam is inspired by the gods to do something unprecedented: he decides to strip himself of all royal trappings and military protection, and go to Achilles – man to man, father to father – and ask for the return of Hector’s body.

Against all the pleas of his family and advisers, Priam sets out with a great treasure (the ransom for his son’s corpse), accompanied only by a carter and his two mules.

Through the journey to Achilles’ camp and his meeting with his son’s killer, Priam begins to see his world anew. Even the great Achilles, still grieving the death of his friend Patroclus, is affected by Priam’s actions. And both realise they have much in common as leaders, soldiers, men and fathers.

Although Ransom is rich with mythology and meticulously researched (but unobtrusive) historical detail, it is grounded firmly in the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

Both Priam and Achilles are driven by guilt and grief. Achilles expresses his with violence and rage while Priam finds the strength to humble himself before his enemy. In doing so, Priam discovers the joys found in the world by lowly men like his attendant – simple pleasures he can never experience as King.

Ransom is a gentle story, but Malouf slowly and expertly builds tension, to the point this literary gem is also a page turner.

This is a book where every line and passage can be savoured – not just for the beauty of the language, but the context in which it is written.

At only 219 pages, Ransom is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates great story telling and the poetry of language. (And I love the cover!)