March 29, 2010


by David Malouf
Knopf Australia
224 pages, Pantheon

Review by SF Winser

I wanted to love this book. Malouf is well-renowned in Australia and not long after reserving this book at the library, I saw Malouf do an interview where he came across as a wonderful and erudite human being. With this book he's writing a plot close to my heart. And I was in the need for some deep, well written stuff.

I did not love this book.

I wanted to. I REALLY wanted to. The best I could manage was like and respect.

In 'Ransom' Malouf takes one small part of the Iliad and examines it from a very human side. Achilles has killed Hector, but not returned the corpse. King Priam wants his son's body back. He's willing to pay a king's ransom for it. And Malouf tells this small story that sits in a back corner of one of the greatest Epics, ever, with grace and depth.

There's some nice echoing themes of ransom. Priam's ransom from slavery. From kingship. Achilles' ransom from monsterdom and self-hatred. And the idea that it is possible to connect with - and even love in a totally unique way – those you have hurt the most and those who have hurt you. There is a profound connection in death, Malouf says, that unites killer and survivor deeper than either ever intend.

There's a lot more depth here, too, than the quick brushstrokes I've given. For a short novel, there's a lot to unpack. Malouf is considered one of the bright lights of literature for a reason.

There is some wonderful language in 'Ransom' but, as much as I want to be, I can never be one of those hip, smart 'language is all' readers. Language is a building block of novel writing and there are masters at it. Malouf is one. But conceptual clarity and depth is also a key building block. So is character. So is narrative. So is structure.

Malouf nails a couple of these, but not enough of them to inspire my love. His language, though...Ouch. The awesomeness nearly hurts. There wasn't a page where I wasn't knocked back on my heels in wonder by a gorgeous or powerful bit of phrasing. Sometimes, several in quick succession. I was often left with a feeling of being artistically punch-drunk to the point where I regularly had to stare off-page for a few moments, just to drink in the language.

But there still must be plot. Malouf lost me early with the scene of Achilles letting his cousin/best-friend(/lover?) take his armor and impersonate him and take the army of Myrmidons with him. It...just didn't fit with Malouf's interpretation of Achilles, for me. This Achilles, caught in rage, would not have given in so easily to this request while not giving in to the request just to go out and fight. We're told that Achilles is withholding his Myrmidon warriors from the battle over an argument with the Greek commander. Because he's angry! He's angry and not easily swayed! But he's angry and easily swayed! Sure, take the Myrmidons! And the armor! Because he's not quite that angry. But Achilles won't go! Because he's angry! And not easily swayed! It's a hard bit of plotting – Malouf didn't invent the circumstance, Homer did. Malouf just had to deal with it and write it as convincingly as he could. But I don't feel he handled it as well as he could have.

And then, we're asked to like and identify with Priam. Like, I could just manage. But there's little universality in a prim and proper Greek king. That's so far from my reality that I couldn't quite connect with him on the level Malouf seemed to be asking for.

Finally there's the dialogue. Malouf does not do good dialogue, here. If I read this dialogue in a fantasy novel... I would laugh. Out loud. And then stop reading such a melodramatic piece of trash. It is often redeemed by the depth of concept that Malouf is getting across, or the odd bit of shiny, shiny language. But it is, for the most part, very bad, overly stately and mock-feudal to the point of parody. Like I said, I wanted to love this book. And the dialogue made my guts squirm.

'Ransom' made my heart weep, like a first date with a hot, smart girl who loves all the same books, foods and movies you do. Who laughs at the same things – except that all she'll talk about is her life-long membership in the Nazi party. So close, so amazing, yet no hope in hell.

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