In the Lap of the Gods

A strongly feminist re-telling of Greek myth, and an intriguing collection of short stories which invoke the fantastic in the modern world.

Issue #31, Saturday 1 October 2022

Bookish News

General News

It was sad to read of the death of Hilary Mantel, the author of the brilliant historical series about Thomas Cromwell, comprising Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, among several other notable works. She was only 70 years old.

Another recent death was that of Alexei Panshin at 82. His novel Rite of Passage won the Nebula Award in 1969 and with his wife Corey he was a prominent critic of the SF genre.

New and Upcoming Releases

Exiles by Jane Harper

Published 20 September 2022

At a busy festival site on a warm spring night, a baby lies alone in her pram, her mother vanishing into the crowds. A year on, Kim Gillespie’s absence casts a long shadow as her friends and loved ones gather deep in the heart of South Australian wine country to welcome a new addition to the family. Joining the celebrations is federal investigator Aaron Falk. But as he soaks up life in the lush valley, he begins to suspect this tight-knit group may be more fractured than it seems.

All of Jane Harper’s crime novels so far have been well worth reading, so it’s exciting to see another title out from this Australian author.

Buy it at Readings.

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame

Published 27 September 2022

Grace Tame has never walked on middle ground. From a young age, her life was defined by uncertainty - by trauma and strength, sadness and hope, terrible lows and wondrous highs. As a teenager she found the courage to speak up after experiencing awful and ongoing child sexual abuse. This fight to find her voice would not be her last. In 2021 Grace stepped squarely into the public eye as the Australian of the Year, and was the catalyst for a tidal wave of conversation and action. Australians from all walks of life were inspired and moved by her fire and passion. Here she was using her voice, and encouraging others to use theirs too.

This looks to be one of those books that every Australian should read. Strange title, but I presume it’s explained within the book.

Buy it at Readings.

One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig

Published 25 October 2022

Elspeth needs a Monster. The Monster might be her.

An ancient, mercurial spirit is trapped inside Elspeth Spindle’s head – she calls him the Nightmare. He protects her. He keeps her secrets. But nothing comes for free, especially magic. When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, she is thrust into a world of shadow and deception. Together, they embark on a dangerous quest to cure the town of Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. As the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

Sometimes, I confess, I just get sucked in by an interesting and attractive cover. That might be the case here. But the book itself sounds unusual and interesting.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Completed since last issue

Ithaca by Claire North

When I was growing up in England and raiding my local library as often as I could get there, Greek myths and legends were the first what you might call “grown-up” fantasies which I encountered once I’d moved past the gentle magics of Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit, and I was quickly fascinated by them.

Here were tales of heroes like Theseus, Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles, Heracles; and of course excerpts from the wanderings of Odysseus. All of these were tailored for a younger audience—I found them in the children’s library—and the sexual exploits of Zeus were omitted or watered-down. And overwhelmingly these tales were presented from a male point of view, dealing with male heroes and mostly dealing with what happened to the male gods such as Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, Hermes; with Athena, perhaps, being an exception because of her renown with arms.

But as Claire North points out early in Ithaca, the poets who wrote of these gods and heroes were overwhelmingly male. Or at least we can say that it’s only the writings of men which have survived. What of the stories of the wives, of the widows, of the mothers and the daughters? Surely theirs is a no less valid point of view? And probably a much more accurate one, as poets are liable to elaborate the truth in aid of telling a good story. Early in the book the narrator says:

The poets will tell you a lot about the heroes of Troy. Some details they have correct, in others, as with all things, they lie. They lie to please their masters. They lie without knowing what they do, for it is the poet’s art to make every ear that hears the ancient songs think they have been sung for them alone, the old made new. Whereas I sing for no creature’s pleasure but my own, and can attest that what you think you know of the last heroes of Greece, you do not know at all.

So the author focuses on those left behind on this small island after Odysseus and his men left for the war with Troy. Eighteen years have passed since the adult men left, and now the inhabitants of Ithaca are either old men or youths who have grown up without fathers. And the women, of course. In particular Penelope, Odysseus’ queen, struggling with keeping Ithaca going while at the same time having to fend off a horde of would-be suitors, each certain that Odysseus is dead and each keen to marry Penelope and become king of this small realm.

This book, the first of a projected trilogy, is narrated by a female voice, the voice of the goddess Hera, Zeus’ wife, the goddess of wives and mothers.

Hera’s attitude towards her fellow gods is a sharp and cynical one, and she often makes amusingly snide comments about them. But her interest in visiting Ithaca (secretly, without Zeus’ knowledge) is to watch Penelope’s struggles and to assist where she can.

The book opens, however, not with Penelope and her unruly crowd of suitors, but with an attack on a small fishing village by three ships of raiders, who pillage, burn and rape. One of the few survivors of the attack is a young woman, Teodora, who has the sense to flee. Her would-be boyfriend, Dares, tries to fight the raiders and is quickly killed.

This isn’t the first such raid; there have been a couple of previous such. It’s clear that there’s likely to be more each time the moon is full. Penelope knows she must take some action, but she is surrounded by male councillors, all of them old and feeble, and as a woman, queen or not, it’s difficult for her to have her voice heard. The old men want to try to put together a militia to fight the raiders, but all they have to work with is other old men and a number of untrained youths, among whom is Telemachus, Odysseus’ own son. Much of the novel relates to Penelope’s ongoing fears for Telemachus, who has grown up in his absent father’s heroic shadow and is desperately trying to live up to what he feels are other’s expectations of him.

The little militia put together by the old men is far too short of numbers, weapons and skill to put up much of a fight against the raiders, even though Telemachus has been getting some additional training at the hands of an Egyptian who has joined the suitors.

Penelope, however, has been secretly putting in place another approach, building an army of her own. I loved this little exchange:

“How do you hide an army?”

“Medon,” Penelope tuts, “what a foolish question. You hide them in precisely the same way you hide your success as a merchant, your skill with agriculture, your wisdom at politics and your innate cutting wit. You hide them as women.”

Then there’s a twist with the arrival on Ithaca of three black-sailed ships, bearing news of the death of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae who was the leader of the victorious Greek forces at Troy. On board the ships are Agamemnon’s children, Orestes and Elektra. They are here not only to bear the news, but to try to find Clytemnestra their mother, who murdered Agamemnon. Orestes has felt compelled to swear to kill her in vengeance, but in the novel he is largely a puppet in the hands of his implacable sister Elektra.

This makes life very much harder for Penelope, who is Clytemnestra’s cousin, because Penelope knows that Clytemnestra has indeed fled to Ithaca, and eventually discovers where she is hiding.

North’s feminist treatment of this part of Greek myth is very convincing. All of the most active roles and viewpoints in the novel are those of women, both human women and female gods. This viewpoint seems both fresh and perfectly natural.

If I have to be critical, it’s only to say that there were times when the narration by the goddess Hera felt a little too contrived, and I felt at times that it would have been better to have had the story told directly by Penelope. I occasionally had to remind myself that it was Hera, not Penelope, who was narrating.

I won’t try to outline any more of the story, which though it starts fairly slowly, quickly gathers pace and becomes gripping.

I liked it a lot, and I’m greatly looking forward to the other books in the trilogy, each of which is apparently narrated by a different goddess.

Buy it at Readings.

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

Firstly, many thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

This is a collection of very odd short stories. I confess frankly that I don’t fully understand many of them, but they are all very well written, well worth reading, and give you plenty of food for thought. I’ll be thinking about some of them for quite a while.

—Warning, spoilers!—

All of the stories are told in the first person by various female narrators. I say “various” but there are many similarities. Each is a young woman who is either an immigrant to the United States from China, or was born in America of Chinese parents. Hardly surprising, because that’s the background of the author herself.

In each story, though, the narrator appears to have become, or is in the process of becoming, unmoored from reality.

In that respect, and in several others, Ling Ma’s stories remind me a lot of those of Shirley Jackson, many of which feature a young, usually married, woman who suffers a breach with the normal world. I’m thinking particularly of Jackson’s stories “The Tooth” and “Pillar of Salt”, in both of which women gradually lose touch with reality. I don’t mean anything uncomplimentary by this comparison, rather the opposite. Ling Ma’s stories are unique and fascinating in their own right.

I won’t try to comment on every story here, but just pick out the ones which had a particular impact on me.

The first story in the book, “Los Angeles” is surreal. The narrator tells us that she lives in a large house divided into three wings. She and her husband live in one wing, their children and nannies live in the second, and in the third live her 100 ex-boyfriends. Her husband only speaks in dollar signs (until, later in the story he’s reduced to talking in pennies).

So far, so fantastic, but then reality begins to edge in. One night the police come looking for one of the narrator’s ex-boyfriends still living in the third wing. He’s called Adam, and he’s accused of domestic violence, of which it seems he has a history with the narrator. A surrealistic chase begins, in which the narrator outpaces the police and runs after Adam on her own, never quite catching him.

The second story, “Oranges” also features the abuser Adam, but this time in a much more realistic setting. The narrator sees Adam in the street and follows him secretly until he reaches the apartment where he is living with another woman, Beth. It’s her apartment, of course, this is his usual method of operation, moving in with a girlfriend.

The narrator tells Beth about her history with Adam and with other women with whom she’s been in contact, his abusive nature, but is not believed. The narrator stares into Adam’s face and sees there not fear or anger, but only a bewildered look of entrapment. I don’t think we’re meant to feel any sympathy with Adam at all, but to understand that in a way he can’t escape his own behaviour, though he knows that it’s personally destructive to him as well as to his victims.

I do wonder if the name “Adam” is chosen to represent the original man, suggesting that violence towards women is the true original sin. It’s a thought, anyway. (And the narrator of the final story in the book is called “Eve”).

Of the other stories in the collection, I was particularly taken by the story simply titled “G”. In it, Bea, a young woman who is about to leave New York to live in California visits an old childhood friend, Bonnie to say goodbye. We learn that when they were in their teens they experimented frequently with a drug called “G”. The drug, we learn, makes the user’s body difficult to see, ghostly, perhaps totally invisible to other people, depending on the dose.

Now Bonnie encourages Bea to take one last trip on G and they go out, naked so as to be near-invisible, to explore the places they visited when younger. But eventually Bea realises she isn’t coming down from the drug, that its effects are becoming stronger, not weaker, with time. Bonnie has overdosed her, and before Bea fades completely away, her body not only invisible but insubstantial, she sees that Bonnie has started to wear Bea’s clothes, has stolen Bea’s identity and erased her very existence. “Do you want to know how long I’ve wanted to do this?” Bonnie asks. She is a different kind of abuser.

The story called “Yeti Lovemaking” is told in the second person, addressed to the narrator’s former lover. The narrator hooks up with a man in a bar, but when they go to her apartment he reveals that he’s not human, but a yeti, an “abominable snowman”. His fur is so sharp that when the narrator strokes him at his invitation, her hand begins to bleed. Having sex with a yeti, it seems, requires the human lover to harden, to transform. It’s a metaphor, I think, of how relationships can damage and harden those involved.

I liked “Office Hours” quite a bit. In it, a young graduate student establishes a friendly (but not sexual) relationship with the head of the university’s English Literature Faculty and often takes afternoon naps in his office while he works. Just before her retires, he moves aside some furniture in his office and reveals a portal. The portal takes them into a night-time world in an unknown rural location. Time never passes here: a cup of hot coffee left there days before remains hot.

The professor retires and then dies. Eventually, the student graduates and joins the faculty and ultimately the professor’s office becomes her own, complete with portal. Entering the portal, she sees a shadowy figure which seems to be the professor, accompanied by his dog, but she is unable to catch up with him to speak. Is the world through the portal the Land of the Dead? Perhaps, but the story ends ambiguously.

“Peking Duck” is a story about memory and the appropriation of other people’s memories. It begins with an anecdote of a Chinese man asked to recall his fondest memory, and he tells of his joy of sharing a banquet of Peking Duck with friends. But then the man admits this is not his memory, but that of his wife, whose enthusiasm about the event makes it his most treasured memory too.

The narrator tells a story of what she witnessed as a child when her mother was the cleaner at a luxurious mansion in some rural area and a man forced his way in pretending to be selling cleaning products. As a child, she was frightened and confused, but the man eventually leaves. Later in the story, when she has grown up with a child of her own, a close analogy of her mother’s experience is played out, with the narrator now a nanny looking after the child of a rich family in an expensive mansion. Now from a first-person point of view, she experiences almost exactly what her mother experienced, but now with a mature understanding of what was going on. But it ends in a different way, reflecting the changes of self-esteem that the change of generations has brought about.

All in all, a very interesting and well-written set of stories. The author wrote a novel called Severance a few years ago, which I must look up.

Buy it at Readings.

Currently Reading

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

I’ve only just started this, but I’m looking forward to reading it. Arnott’s debut novel Flames and his second, The Rain Heron were really excellent, deeply Australian with the fantastic interacting with the everyday world. Many thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book, which will be released on 5 October 2022.

Waiting on the Shelf

Too many books! But here is what I have, literally on the shelf:

And that’s your lot. See you next time.

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