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A model for historical novelists,
This review is from: The Last Of The Wine (Paperback)
In the slew of wordier, more hyped fiction about the classical world that is engulfing us at the moment, I hope some readers are prompted to go back to Mary Renault. Her books are an object lesson in what you can leave out. It's not about research, it's not about pages of painstaking archaeological description leavened by sword-slashing and peplum-ripping, it's about the kind of imaginitive immersion in an ancient culture that can enable the author to present it in its own terms, without explication, but so that the perennial dilemmas of the soul that were present then as now leap across to the modern reader, defamiliarised and sharpened by their alien setting.
The Last of the Wine is about Athens in the time of Socrates, but is above all an Oedipal tragedy of the starkness that you would expect in a culture where fathers had the power of life and death over their children. Alexias finds out that his father wanted him killed at birth and this knowledge blights their relationship and his whole life, successful and adventurous though it is on the surface. In a bitterly poignant moment, when the father lies dying, he tries to ask forgiveness but Alexias thinks he only wants to be told all over again that he was right; it is symptomatic of how Alexias, unlike his lover Lysis, is too emotionally scarred to escape from the conventions of his doomed society - but Lysis dies (as does Socrates), and Alexias survives, bereft, disillusioned, revealing much more as a narrator than he has understood himself.
For the combination of page-turning narrative brilliance with psychological insight, no one rivals Mary Renault. Read it, read all her other books on ancient Greece, The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, the Alexander trilogy, The Praise Singer. Mouth-watering, stomach-filling writing, the kind of meal one remembers years later.