Is all fair in war and love?

By Anna Mundow
February 28, 2010

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It seems proper in the infancy of this year to take up substantial rather than escapist reading - whole-grain literature, if you like, but of the most flavorful kind. In his gem of a novel “Ransom,” Australian writer David Malouf reimagines one of the most moving episodes of Homer’s “Iliad”: the retrieval by Priam, the Trojan king, of his slain son Hector’s body from Achilles, the Greek warrior.

“Ransom” opens at the water’s edge where Achilles is fleetingly soothed by the murmur of the waves. We, too, are transfixed, but by the rhythmical force of Malouf’s language. “Small waves slither to his sandalled feet,’’ he writes, “then sluice away with a rattling sound as the smooth stones loosen and go rolling.”

The siege of Troy is in its ninth year, and a jittery calm prevails as we step into the story and onto a shore that Malouf conjures up in almost cinematic detail. “Laid out on uneven ground along a rocky bluff, Troy is a city of four-square towers topped by untidy storks’ nests, each as tall as a man.” Beneath Troy’s walls and in front of its horrified inhabitants, Achilles kills Hector to avenge the death of his soul mate Patroclus and drags the body behind his chariot until “[h]e is as fouled with dust as the thing - bloody and unrecognisable - that he trails from his axle-bar.”

Within Troy’s palace, the aged king imagines how he may ransom Hector’s body back for burial. The gods, of course, play their part when they “materialise, jelly-like, out of the radiant vacancy,” heightening a drama that culminates when Priam confronts Achilles.

In an afterword, Malouf describes how he first heard the story of Troy, as a schoolboy in 1943 in Australia where “[w]e too were in the middle of a war.” Here he conveys both war’s timelessness and its horrible particularity while allowing us glimpses of mercy, mortal and immortal.

Political not heavenly visions bewitch Leon Czolgosz, the central character in John Smolens’s moody yet thrilling novel, “The Anarchist,” based on the assassination in 1901 of President William McKinley. “People wanted jobs, they wanted food, they wanted better working conditions,” Czolgosz reflects as he eventually faces execution. “Now they wanted Leon Czolgosz.”

The son of Polish immigrants, this fictionalized Czolgosz is an enigma: an idealist inspired by Emma Goldman but also an innocent in the underworld of Buffalo and of the Erie Canal waterfront where criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and Pinkerton agents ply their trades. Smolens vividly evokes this demimonde as he sets in motion a plot that is wound clockwork-tight. A prostitute is found murdered, presumably by the anarchists on whom she was spying; a desperate young man is persuaded to take her place; the president and his retinue arrive in Buffalo. The clockwork turns, and the fateful act looms.

Here McKinley and his intimates emerge as complex, flawed individuals while Czolgosz, his accidental comrades, and even his jailers are granted similar depth. The incoming president, Theodore Roosevelt - and the political change he represents - is also pithily captured. There are no surprises if you know your history, but the subtlety and vigor with which Smolens evokes this turbulent era makes “The Anarchist” far more than a superior adventure. A warning, however, to squeamish readers: I could not read Smolens’s unflinching description of death in the electric chair.

After all that intrigue, what we need is a tale of young love in a carefree era. “It was a time when young people from everywhere were driving Volkswagen buses through the mountains of Afghanistan and chanting in ashrams in India,” Anne Greves recalls in Kim Echlin’s astonishing new novel “The Disappeared.” Anne is looking back 30 years to the late 1970s when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl living in Montreal. One summer night, she meets the love of her life, a description that in this novel is both literally and metaphysically true. “I knew from that first walk home,” Anne declares, “how we sat that night and watched the clouds roll in across the moon.”

Soon more ominous shadows intrude. Serey, Anne’s beloved, who fled Cambodia in 1972, fears that his family may have been killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide. Hearing that the borders have reopened, Serey abruptly returns home and 11 years later, having heard nothing since he left, Anne sets out to find him. Her journey takes us inside the sealed world of Cambodia’s nightmare where, at every turn, “memory flips its dark belly to the surface.’’ The power of Anne’s voice, however, and the sheer beauty of Echlin’s writing - as lyrical as it is honest - keeps us reading through the pain.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

RANSOM By David Malouf

Pantheon, 240 pp., $24


By John Smolens

Three Rivers, 352 pp.,

paperback, $15


Black Cat, 225 pp.,

paperback, $14