BRIGHT AIR BLACK

David Vann

Heinemann (2017) h/b 272pp £18.99 (ISBN 9780802125804)

The story of Medea is probably the most unpleasant in all mythology: cruelty, deceit, betrayal and murder all feature prominently even in its bare outline. It’s hard to find a redeeming feature in any of its characters. Yet V. in his ‘reimagining’ has exaggerated this terrifying tale into quite the nastiest book I have ever read. Only my commitment to a Classics for All review took me past the opening pages: you have been warned.

V. writes with gusto, wallowing in details of dismemberment, rape, and torture: abuse of every kind. He is obsessed by blood and bodily fluids, fire and darkness, sweat and smoke. His aim is to spare the reader nothing as he works on every incident in the Argo’s familiar voyage from Colchis to a shattering version of Jason’s return to Iolchos. His style is vivid and pictorial, leaving nothing to anyone else’s imagination as he dramatises every one of the five senses in descriptions of excruciating detail.

The cover promises ‘a fresh and provocative take on one of our earliest texts’. Readers more accustomed to the violence of Game of Thrones and its like may be less squeamish than I am; but Euripides’s version of Medea provides me in its spareness with as much as is needed to bring out the disasters caused by the clash of cultures and personalities, the bitterness of abandonment and revenge and the ultimate despair, without literally rubbing one’s nose in gratuitous brutality.

The blurb calls Vann ‘forceful and potent’ and ‘extravagantly gifted and moving’. Just remember that in the catalogue of historical novelists he is not for the young or impressionable. You have been warned!

 

Isabel Raphael

 

 

 

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