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Customer reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
22
4.8 out of 5 stars

on 9 July 2010
Comparing the secretive comradeship of homosexuals to the brotherhood in arms of servicemen in the Second World War was a very daring thing to do in the 1950s, but Mary Renault does it in this book. All three main characters and some of the secondary ones (Reg, Dave and Alec) have a strong code of honour and a sense of comradeship which leads them to a desire to protect their fellows. Not everyone can live up to the ideals of their respective codes: the public schoolboy who 'rats' on his head of school, the soldier who kills his instructor and blows off his own hand in grenade training, the unfaithful wife of a war-wounded soldier, the superficial gay party-goers, the vicar lacking in empathy or charity. A few characters seem to have no code of honour or comradeship whatsoever, but they seem to show its existence even more strongly by their deviance from it. (Interestingly there are no cowardly conscientious objectors, it is taken as read that all were acting on a moral imperative, war and pacifism were not the targets here.)

I borrowed Mary Renault's historical novels from the school library and enjoyed them very much. This one, possibly her greatest work, was not in the collection. I wish it had been, this is a masterpiece novel which must have been mind-changing for those who read it on first release. Did this novel help bring about the legalisation of male homosexuality? It would have done if enough people read it.

There are no descriptions of sex in this novel. The reader knows when it happens, the omittance is not prudish. The only other concession to the public morality of the time is that characters are given childhood traumas as 'reasons' for their homosexuality. Mary Renault had studied Ancient Greece and knew the real world as well, she knew some people are just born 'that way', but this novel HAD to be published.

It would help if the reader had a passing aquaintance with the works of Plato to understand the significance of that particular book and the various quotes, but it is not essential. The story of the charioteer soul is explained very well for the uninitiated. If any reader of "The Lord of the Flies" finds the choice of the name Ralph significant, it might also add to the understanding of this multi-layered magnificent novel.

Wow! This book almost makes me want to remove a star from every other review I have written.
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on 1 August 2008
This novel works on a number of different levels: it's a love story as well as an examination of conscience and human behaviour. There's symbolism in it too: it's set during World War II, soon after Dunkirk, when Britain is marooned alone, and there is the protagonist, struggling with the two sides of his nature, trying to do the right thing but not always sure what the right thing is. In Greek myth, the human soul can be likened to two horses, one well-behaved, and one always off at a tangent, and it's the job of each person to be charioteer to their own two horses and keep them on the right track. Laurie is the charioteer of the title, struggling to be honest to himself and to his conscience.

We meet him in the first chapter, on the night his parents separate (this, and his mother's possessiveness, are the rather unconvincing explanation for his homosexuality); in the second he's a bored but idealistic teenager, rushing to the defence of head of house Ralph Lanyon, only to realise that Lanyon has done just what he's been accused of doing.

In Chapter 3 the story really starts: Laurie's on a bleak hospital ward with his smashed leg which will never be the same again (and that, really, is the least of his worries) feeling detached from all the other men around him. Some Quaker conscientious objectors come to work as orderlies, and with one of these, Andrew, Laurie falls precipitately in love. He doesn't do anything about it, other than to become Andrew's friend, because he thinks Andrew's better off not knowing.

Then he runs into Lanyon again: a dashing, experienced and rather cynical naval officer. It's the tension between Laurie's affections for Andrew and Lanyon that drives the story forward.

The scene-setting and characterisation are stunning: some of the minor characters are brought into close and vivid focus with a few words. The War is always there, inescapably scraping against the your consciousness as you read. That homosexual activity is still illegal is implied rather than stated. The sub-plots are deftly shuffled in and out of view. Now and then one of the baddies is just a bit too lacking in redeeming features to be quite convincing and Andrew's innocence seems impossible, but this is a book of intense psychological insight, well-written, well-plotted and well worth re-reading.
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on 16 May 2003
As a great fan of the author, i discovered this title purely by accident in a charity shop and was mesmerised. Renault demonstrates exceptional insight into human nature and this talent, combined with a remarkable ability of transferring her observations to the written word, gives the reader a moving and very believable story of the lives of gay people during the second world war, well before the word was first penned. The characters are wonderfully complex and yet so very easy to relate to. The party sequence in which she continues to build the scene throughout the chapter, constantly introducing new and varied characters would be banal and confusing from anyone with less ability. If any novel is deserving of the title 'gay classic', this one gets my vote.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 July 2011
After following Laurie Odell at various stages through his youth, including a significant meeting with Ralph Lanyon, at nineteen some three years his senior, his Head of House at school whom Laurie idolised, we very soon pick up the story when Laurie is wounded at Dunkirk.

Now hospitalised and now facing the future as a cripple he befriends the soldier in the next bed, but it is the arrival of young Andrew, a new hospital orderly and a conscientious objector who moves his heart. The two men form a close and loving but chaste friendship, Laurie (know as much by his nickname Spud) wanting intimacy but content to accept that Andrew's beliefs will not allow it. All is well until by chance Spud meets up again with Ralph who introduces him to a new private world of exclusively queer men.

Laurie finds himself torn between his love and feelings of responsibility for Andrew, and the more seductive attractions that Ralph, who clearly loves and cares deeply for Spud, can offer.

The Charioteer it a beautiful and very tender love story. Very well written, although perhaps now showing its age a little it being first published in 1959, the eloquent prose occasionally hinders ones understanding, and it is at times subtle to the point of obscurity; in more than one instance I was left unsure about events even after several readings of a passage. However it is nonetheless most touching and moving; the three significant characters, Spud, Ralph and Andrew, each very different but each very appealing, and with many more diverse characters, some good hearted but with a few with more sinister intent, combined with an involving plot set against the background of the WWII, this is a most satisfying and memorable read.

[I read this in the 2003 Vintage Books edition - the poor quality of production leaving a lot to be desired.]
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on 7 March 2011
THE CHARIOTEER, the sixth and last of Mary Renault's modern-day novels (most of it takes place in 1940) was first published by Longmans, Green & Co Ltd in 1953, with this distinctive blue, black and white cover portraying the mythical figure from Plato's "Phaedrus" referenced in the book. When in 1959 it belatedly appeared in the U.S., it was in a significantly shorter version: 341 pages of text versus 394 of the original. Even allowing for the fact that the new edition has slightly longer lines than the old (the line-count per page is identical), this is a substantial revision.
Whether this was undertaken at the instigation of her American editor or on her own initiative, it's clear from a detailed comparison of the texts that Renault seized the opportunity to improve an already fine book. The first half of the novel in particular benefits greatly from discreet tightening. The cuts are largely a matter of a few sentences here and there, though one short (and thoroughly superfluous) episode disappears; there are also a number of small but telling improvements in wording, and one amusing instance of "de-censorship": the London edition's "a load of rubbish" has become in the American "a load of crap." Individually and collectively, the changes confirm one's impression of Renault as a writer of acute discernment and discipline, as well as her reputation as an enthusiastic and skilled trimmer of her own work.
I think that this, the original Longmans edition will always be of interest to those who know and love the book already and who have a scholarly/pedantic bent. If you would like to know more about the mismanagement at the E.M.S. hospital, or how many people are present at the start of Sandy and Alec's party, or how old Charlot is, you will find these additional details here. But the later edition, which serves as the basis for all subsequent reprints, certainly represents Mary Renault's final, and best thoughts.
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on 15 September 2013
Written in 1953, this is one of the first British novels which wrote about gay love in an unconcealed and uncoded way. Given Renault's own sexuality, it's interesting that she chose to write about gay men rather than women - perhaps because there was more of a `scene' for men, even in the 1940s (when the book is set) and the 1950s (when it was written). In any case, this is a book about love, about choices, about mistakes, and the whole fraught business of our emotional lives regardless of the gender of its protagonists.

This has a slightly faded, old-fashioned air about it, and is quite different from Renault's superlative Greek novels which remain some of my favourite books ever. There is less richness and density in the writing which some readers may prefer. Renault is very good on intimacy and the shifting emotions between people, though the ending feels a trifle over-blown to me.

So if you've loved Renault's historical novels, this is worth a read. But if you haven't experienced her yet I would suggest going to The Alexander Trilogy or the re-telling of the Theseus story first (The King Must Die,The Bull From The Sea) and then returning to this.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 28 November 2010
I've always loved Mary Renault's Ancient Greece novels, particularly her Alexander trilogy. She's such a wonderful writer - her portrayal of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion always particularly touches me - and now I have to add another masterpiece to that list.

This novel is apparently quite a landmark in gay literature, published in the 1950s and being such an open and brave look at homosexual love in WW2. It's about Laurie, a wounded soldier, not quite at ease with his own homosexuality, and his choice between Andrew, a young conscientious objector, and Ralph, a sailor whom Laurie knew at school.

It's such a delicate read, really quite subtle in places, and the tenderness that Ralph displays towards Laurie is very moving. It is a tad sexless in places; the romance and relationships seem very much on a higher plane, but no doubt part of that is a result of the 1950s, and it does lend the whole work a rather epic and dreamy tone.
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on 14 July 2006
In this exquisite novel, Mary Renault, best-known for her novels set in ancient Greece, turns her attention to the tendentious subject of homosexual love during the Second World War. Laurie, a wounded soldier recovering in hospital, becomes enamoured of the young and clearly innocent Andrew, a conscientious objector who is working as an orderly. Into the midst of this idyll comes Ralph, an old friend from Laurie's school days, with whom Laurie was in love, or in awe. Along with Ralph come a variety of his friends, some melodramatic, some manipulative. The subject of the novel is Laurie's indecision between Andrew and his otherworldly, ethereal charm, and Ralph's more down-to-earth reality.

The title refers to the metaphor that which the soul is a charioteer in charge of two horses, one beautiful and well-behaved, the other wild and wilful. The charioteer has to keep peace between them and ensure that they don't drag the chariot off-course.

Mary Renault is respected for being so adept at creating believable male characters. Although some of the denizens of this novel are types, the naïve pretty youth, the camp and dramatic queen, the manipulative, predatory homosexual, they never become stereotypes thanks to Renault's gift for characterization.

At the time this novel was written, during the 1950's, the subject of homosexuality was still contentious, and using it as the theme of a novel was a brave decision. There is nothing exploitive or prurient about the story, nor is there any kind of plea for tolerance; this is simply a story with well-drawn, consistent characters going about their daily lives. At the same time, there is a strong sense of the time and place in which the novel is set: the war goes on in the background, people try to get on with their lives in the shadow of constant threat, people are kind or selfish according to character. Mary Renault is a superb creator of real people, and anyone who enjoys an engrossing story will find much to enjoy within the pages of this engrossing novel.
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on 6 April 2011
One of my absolute favourite novels of all time. Mary Renault doesn't waste a single word, and she has the immense skill of saying just as much by what she doesn't say as what she does. There are few authors who've ever come close to the mastery of both words and plot that she shows here. All her books are good, but this was one of the peak moments of her craft. I imagine the only reason this book isn't cited whenever true classics are mentioned is that the subject matter works against mass popularity. Which is a real shame.

It is of course a product of its time, but despite that it is still a book I have worn to death with rereadings over the years, hence my need for a replacement copy. If you're looking for something written with both beauty and skill, look no further.
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on 15 November 2010
This is on my wishlist because my paperback is falling to bits. This is, perhaps, my favourite love story - at the very least it's one I return to, and one that still touches and moves me after many readings. Laurie, a young gay man wounded in action in World War 2 is at the heart of the novel, and it centres around the choices he makes and the love he feels for two very different characters - Andrew the innocent and Ralph, knowing but heartbreakingly vulnerable. Renault portrays the gay scene in an era when homosexuality was illegal, but the immanence of death heightened both the desire for shallow pleasure and the need for real love. The book is, however, much more than a historical curiosity and deserves a much wider readership.
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