Book review: Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin

Lavinia
By Ursula Le Guin
Gollancz, €18

Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 31st, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Ursula Le Guin is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, but with Lavinia she has sunk her teeth into an altogether more literary challenge. Part historical fiction, part fantasy and part literary conceit, La Guin’s latest novel tells the story of a minor character in Virgil’s 2,000year-old epic poem, The Aeneid.

In the original work, Lavinia is a 19-year-old princess who appears briefly, blushing at the prospect of marrying the hero Aeneas. However, in Le Guin’s novel, her story is fleshed out and extrapolated, with Lavinia becoming the central player in a story about politics, mysticism and civil war. Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata of the Italian kingdom of Latinum in an era before the founding of Rome.

At the start of the book, King Latinus is thinking of his legacy and of finding a successor. Lavinia is his only surviving child, as both his sons were killed many years previously by mysterious illnesses.

While his kingdom has enjoyed peace for the last 20 years, he needs to secure its strategic position by marrying his daughter off to the right suitor. His wife, Queen Amata has strong ideas on the matter she has become unhinged with grief and has never fully recovered from losing her sons.

She sees her nephew, Turnus, as a surrogate son and is determined to marry her daughter off to him. Turnus is ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Rutuli, and in many ways is a suitable match he is young, good looking and charismatic, if a bit impetuous.

More importantly, King Latinus knows that Turnus would make a good ally for the kingdom of Latinumat a time when there is much political instability in the area.

However, Lavinia is reluctant to agree to the match. She is a headstrong girl and, having grown up in peace time, has no idea of the political trouble brewing on the horizon. Like her father, she experiences visions and hears the voice of an oracle in the family’s sacred grove in Albunea. The oracle tells King Latinus to refuse Turnus’ proposal and to wait for a better suitor.

Meanwhile, a band of refugees from the Trojan War arrive on the shore s of Latinum, and Lavinia has a premonition that she will marry their leader, the hero Aeneas.

Latinum welcomes the Trojans and agrees to marry his daughter to Aeneas, leading to marital conflict with Queen Amata and war with King Turnus, who feels slighted by the choice.

Le Guin is an extremely accomplished creator of imaginary worlds. At 79 years of age, she has been a respected science fiction writer for more than 40 years and she has applied herself to Lavinia’s story with zeal. Latinum comes alive and the ancient Italy portrayed in the book feels authentic.

However, Lavinia is not really a historical novel, and Guin is clearly happy to play around with the rules of this universe.

A central part of the storyline involves Lavinia meeting and talking to a mystery presence in her family’s sacred grove.

This important narrator turns out to be the poet Virgil himself, travelling back in time in ghost form to let her know how events around her are to play out.

Many writers of historical fiction commit the cardinal sin of giving modern sensibilities to their historical characters placing liberal feminists in the dark ages or social democrats in medieval times, and so on despite the fact such ideas would have been unthinkable to those characters.

Le Guin doesn’t do this. The central character is accessible to the modern reader, but enough of the society she is supposed to live in is presented to make the context clear.

Lavinia is expected to marry whoever she is told to marry, and her objection to Turnus isn’t based on any idea of love or personal preference, but rather by a strong sense of predestiny.

In some places the book is unevenly paced the second half is much more enjoyable as the plot speeds up and more happens but overall, it’s a fascinating read.

Lavinia opens a thought provoking window into a long dead world, and offers something interesting from the hands of a writer who is extremely competent and passionately engaged with her subject matter.

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