Gilgamesh, taken from the title of the Mesopotamian poem which features throughout the book, is an absolute must read. It is a beautifully crafted novel, sparse in language and structure yet, at the same time, the story told is downright epic. We’re taken through three generations of a fascinating family, traverse three continents, and are swept away from a small clearing in Nunderup, Australia, to the sinister landscape and espionage of a world war. It is a book about adventure, and betrayal.
The narrative is made up of scenes from the lives of the characters that illustrate who they are and gently push the reader through the plot, rather than race us through with a load of action. They are often just small details and simple happenings that, when put together, tell this massive story. It’s a powerful narrative structure, but its power lies in its simplicity and its deceptively gentle prose.
Taking up most of the novel is the plight of an attractive and naive single mother, Edith, and her little boy, Jim, as they search for Jim’s father. As a single mother myself I can relate to her experience and the relationship between the boy and her mother. When you’re on your own as a parent, there is a sense of you and your child versus the world. You struggle every day, your child has to grow up too fast, and there seems an imbalance and a lack of security no matter what you do to make up for the absence of a father figure in your child’s life. There is also the suspicion and alienation a single mother experiences within a community; even in the year 2013, and an abundance of divorce, that hasn’t changed.
Joan London has made her characters utterly believable and unique as people, so we, as reader, care deeply about them. This is what makes the narrative so compelling, that and all the cliff-hangers which feature throughout the structure of those short scenes rather than long chapters.
The places she writes about are also believable and real, without yards of flowery description getting in the way of pace. She gives us just so much information and what we already know and can imagine does the rest of the work. I like how she credits the reader with plenty of intelligence.
Talking of description – how she describes all things sexual in the book is brilliant. She is never explicit, but drops just enough detail, usually in a sentence or two, for us to know exactly what went on and what it is was probably like. This is subtle story-telling at its best and, as a writer, I want to learn from that and experiment with it in my own work.
Twice in my life have I finished a novel on a train and allowed myself to cry publicly because it has so moved me. The last time was when I read A Tale of Two Cities about fifteen years ago. I did it again today on the train back from Wellington with Gilgamesh. I reached the close of the story and cried openly, not loudly, but enough to need the tissue passed to me by a sympathetic stranger.
This is an outstanding novel. I shall be hunting down her short story collection in the morning when I return Gilgamesh to the library. Grab it from the shelf while you can.