Joan London's GILGAMESH is an understated and engaging novel of
physical and emotional adventure, and the unknowable and invisible
bonds that unite some people in life. It is 1937, and
seventeen-year-old Edith has lived her whole life on the wild
Australian coast on a bit of land her father has tried to tame for
years. After her father's death, the land grows harder and harder
to maintain; she, along with her mother and sister, soon slip into
complacency and solitude.
The arrival of her cousin Leopold and his intriguing Armenian
friend Aram brings Edith back to life. The two young men, having
just returned from an archeological dig in Iraq, challenge her to
think about the world beyond southwestern Australia. They fascinate
her with tales of the places they've traveled and the worlds they
have seen. With Aram, Edith shares a special attraction and, after
he and Leopold leave, she finds out that she is pregnant with his
child. With new confidence, Edith decides to keep the baby and,
after her son Jim is born, the two set off on a journey to find
Her love and longing for Aram, a man she hardly knows in any
conventional sense, take Edith and her son from their isolated home
to Soviet-ruled Armenia and then to the Middle East before
returning to Australia. This journey brings her closer to Leopold
and makes her more aware of her own needs and desires. It instills
in Jim a sense of Armenian identity, as well as a wanderlust
similar to that of Leopold and his father.
All of London's characters seem lonely. They come together under
often dramatic or dangerous circumstances and then share the
ordinary details and events of their lives. Despite the subtext of
espionage, war and world affairs, this is a quiet novel as shy as
Edith but still as bold. London's subdued tone belays the strong
emotions of the characters, the urgency of Edith's need to find
Aram and the drama of the story. The loneliness of the characters
manifests in passionate relationships and these relationships
compose much of the novel.
Edith's restlessness drives the plot, but the friendship and
adventures of Aram and Leopold underscore the action. Their
relationship parallels that of the mythical Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
But by the end of the novel, Edith, Leopold and Jim are all like
Gilgamesh, living life as best they can in the absence of Aram,
their Enkidu. When he grows up, Jack becomes a figure like Edith,
journeying far, with the assistance of Leopold, to search out the
legacy of Aram.
The pace of GILGAMESH is slow, sometimes drowsy, but the novel is
well written, a uniquely told yet classically understood take on
the themes of friendship, longing and journeying. While no
knowledge of the myth of Gilgamesh is required to understand,
appreciate or enjoy the novel, it would certainly enhance the
reading. Spinning from a myth of universal themes, London has
created a novel just as evocative and universal.
Like Gilgamesh, Edith must leave home, test herself, love and lose
much in order to learn her true strength and worth. Like Gilgamesh,
she comes home weary and wise. And the reader, invested in the
brutally real lives of Edith and Jim, gains much from this
emotional and honest tale.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011