Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In The Aeneid, Virgil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.
Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life. (description from GoodReads)
I am not the feminine voice you may have expected. Resentment is not what drives me to write my story. Anger, in part, perhaps. But not an easy anger. I long for justice, but I do not know what justice is. It is hard to be betrayed. It is harder to know you made betrayal inevitable.
Lavinia begins in the character’s childhood, following her as suitors seek to marry her to gain her father’s crown and her mother pressures her to marry Turnus of Ardea. She speaks with the poet Virgil in a vision. They discuss many things: the fated arrival of Aeneas, religion, the nature of war. The metafictional element used here is not something I read very often, but Le Guin pulls it off.
I recommend reading The Aeneid first, but that’s mostly so that you can read the epic without knowing too much about it. You can only read Virgil for the first time once, after all. If you insist on reading Lavinia first, I don’t think you will be too lost, though.
This is a short novel, but I read this one slowly so that I wouldn’t read too fast for the group I was reading with. I remember struggling a little with the domestic focus of Le Guin’s Tehanu when I read it years ago, but here everything held my interest, including the slice-of-life stuff: farming, herding, weaving, caring for the hearth gods and singing.
In truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself. Yet without him would I even have a name? I have never blamed him. Even a poet cannot get everything right.
This book won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.