This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out on 20 March 2017; RRP $29.99 (C-format paperback).
This is a tale about Medea, which makes me happy she is definitely one of the more intriguing of ancient mythical women. Kerry Greenwood wrote a take on her ages ago, which I remember enjoying, and she featured in Robert Holdstock’s remarkable Merlin-and-Jason series (hmm… did I ever finish that? Must check). For the modern writer there must be a challenge in trying to understand what could compel this woman to leave her homeland, kill her brother, and eventually kill her children, and a tension is deciding whether to stay true to the “original” (HA) story, or to put a different spin on it – keep the children alive, for instance. Do you play Jason as a helpless fool or an arrogant one, Medea as loving and betrayed or as cunning herself, and perhaps still betrayed – or the witch that she’s sometimes regarded as? Lots of interesting possibilities.
… and I guess those are some spoilers if you don’t know the Medea story.
Vann chooses to set his version properly far back in time, the 1300s BC; there is reference to Hittites, and Ilium, and Egypt. There are no Greeks; Jason and his Argonauts are the Mynae. Intriguingly, his descriptions of the voyage of the Argo back to Iolcus – which is more than a third of the book – is based on Vann’s own experience of traveling on a recreated ship of Hatshepsut’s time, with archaeologist Cheryl Ward, for a French documentary Building Pharaoh’s Ship.
First, let me mention the language. The copy describes it as ‘poetic prose’, which is apt. Bluntly it means there are lots of incomplete sentences and a few extended ones, and lots of adjectives and time spent on description. The gorgeous reality, of course, is not captured in that summation. For example:
Her father a golden face in darkness. Appearing in torchlight over the water and vanishing again. Face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage. (p1)
The sail not a god itself but only the tracing of a god, a more responsive form of temple. Like fire to reveal Hekate. How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping only the sign of a god? Wind itself a sign of something else, and even fire, and white hides behind them? (115).
I’m not accustomed to reading quite such flowery language (which I mean positively), so it did take me longer than expected to read the book. It is wonderfully evocative and enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. And the other thing that I appreciated you can see in that last quote – Hekate. Korinth. Kreon. It’s also Iolcus and Colchis so I’m not sure if that’s annoying inconsistency; some Green scholar will have to let me know.
There are lots of threads that Vann is tracing through Bright Air Black (words from a translation of Euripides – the gods “turn the bright air black” in frustrating mortals). One is the role of gods, or lack thereof. Medea frequently calls on Hekate, who sometimes appears to answer in the form of fortuitous weather; but at other times Medea despairs of her goddess and appears to be at best agnostic. There is no magic here (probably); there is luck and poison and human trickery and the use of power. There’s some commentary on the role of those things in developing human society and how men (as a rule) keep power.
This being Medea there is also commentary on the nature of feminine power. Medea has always been a weird girl, going off into the forest and not being afraid of the night; she plays on that and develops her reputation for fearlessness through her familiarity with the unfamiliar and inhuman – forests, the sea, the night. And then she leaves her family for a foreigner. Medea herself ruminates on the power of women versus the power of men; this includes thinking about her own family, and the complicated genealogy whereby it’s unclear exactly who her mother and grandmother are – are they the same person? No one much cares; it’s the men that matter.
This is a pretty straight retelling of Medea’s story – if you know Medea, you know what’s going to happen. Vann has added motive and explanation, an investigation and justification of some events and a whole lot of description. It’s a great addition to the oeuvre of Greek mythological retellings.