9780701184155This is where I start from: David Malouf’s name was unknown to me before I received the review copy of Ransom, but I gather now that he is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. The novel (Malouf’s first in ten years) draws on Homer’s Iliad, which I’ve never read; and the Trojan War is one of the aspects of Greek mythology that I don’t know much about. In short, I came to Ransom largely from a position of ignorance, which means I’ve probably missed a lot of the book’s subtleties – but let’s see what I can take from it all the same.

As Ransom begins, Achilles’ friend and comrade-in-arms Petroclus has been killed by Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy. Achilles takes his revenge on Hector and, attempting to assuage his grief, parades the body repeatedly before the city of Troy. Seeing this display, Priam first interprets it as a sign that the gods are mocking him. But then a vision shows him another way that things could be, and Priam resolves to travel in disguise to Achilles, taking a cart full of treasure with which to ransom Hector’s body.

In his afterword, Malouf comments that ‘[Ransom]’s primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them, how stories get changed in the telling’. I’m generally wary of author statements like this, because I prefer the text to speak for itself, and allow me to draw my own conclusions. And I find that the theme of storytelling is not what stands out the most in Ransom; yes, it’s mentioned, but I don’t see that it is really being explored to such an extent (of course, it may well just be that I’m missing out on the interplay between novel and Iliad).

What I take away the most from Ransom is the portrait of a world which is not my own. I haven’t the knowledge to judge how authentic is Malouf’s depiction of ancient times (and it’s a legendary version, anyway), but it’s convincing enough for me. This is a society to which the idea of things happening by chance is an alien concept, where everyone is bound to the stations given them by the gods, even a king: he must be seen to be a king, becoming more ‘object’ than individual – which is why Priam’s plan to disguise himself causes such controversy. It takes some effort to connect with this world that thinks so differently, and so it should – but the reward is a fully immersive tale.

Although Ransom never comes across as pastiche, Malouf’s prose does give it a legendary quality; it feels at one and the same time as if the novel is taking place in the ancient world as it might have been (incidentally, Ransom is an excellent example of how to integrate historical detail without drowning the narrative), and in a timeless ‘land of fable’. It’s a singular reading experience, which is worth a look.

(This review was first published on BookRabbit.com)