This is my tenth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin is a lovely book about the character from Virgil’s Aeneid. The setting is not so much historical as mythological, and our narrator tells us right up front that there may be a real Lavinia out there, but this one was created by her poet. Where she was scanted in the epic, here she is brought fully to life.
The storyline jumps around in time, giving us glimpses of Lavinia after the events of the story, and from late in the story, all threaded through the progressing tale. In a way, it mirrors the way Lavinia lived her life, getting glimpses of the future through her dream conversations with the poet. So for many key events, we know the outcome—and it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story one bit. I’ve never read the Aeneid, or even heard the CliffsNotes version, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations for spoilers is up by now.
One of my favorite things about Lavinia was the rich portrayal of the culture, and the way it differed from how we would think of Roman culture (this is, of course, set before the founding of Rome). When the poet is telling Lavinia Aeneas’s story, she doesn’t understand his personification of Juno. To her, juno is a woman’s innate power, not a goddess at all. The Latins worship many gods—the Penates and Lares of storeroom and city, Vesta of the hearth, the gods of nature and place—but they are not people. Lavinia knew no stories about gods off fighting and loving and meddling in human lives.
Portents and omens played a huge part in daily life. Any unusual occurrence was seen as such, and the king would be brought to read its meaning. When Lavinia saw something in a dream at Albunea, people believed it. I thought it was interesting, though, how often people chose to disregard those portents that went contrary to their wishes. One of those ways in which people never really change.
The writing was gorgeous, the characters seemed ready to step off the page, and if you get the chance, I recommend the audio version—the narrator was wonderful. I’ve known for years I should be reading Le Guin; now I’ll definitely have to seek out more of her work.
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