Tuesday, July 1, 2008


By Adele Geras
Harcourt Children's Books
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

I'm on a reading roll at the moment. Over the last month every single book I have picked up and read has been a huge treat, all for different reasons. This doesn't happen all that often, good book, bad book, indifferent book, great book seems to be the pattern, probably because I am totally indiscriminate and ramble around picking and dipping with no plan, but it makes life interesting.

The latest in my good run is Troy by Adele Geras. This, and the next book Ithaka, were sent to me some time ago but I had not got round to putting them at the top of the TBR mountain and now I have and, of course, wished I had done it sooner.

This is ostensibly a 'young adult' book, written for ages 12-14 or thereabouts, at a guess. I could be totally off the wall about this and no doubt Adele will let me know how wildly inaccurate I am, but no matter. It is a book that can be easily ready by adults (perhaps it was written for adults...?? see still unsure) but the fact of the matter is that it should be read by anybody no matter what age, because it is just so good.

We all know the story of the siege of Troy, how Paris whisked Helen off and away from her husband Menelaus and then followed the start of the Trojan wars, and we all know about the Trojan horse and Hector and Achilles and all that followed, but this story takes us into the real lives of those living in Troy and how they go about their day to day lives. Two sisters, Xanthe and Marpessa are both trapped in the beleaguered city. Marpessa is a handmaiden and friend to Helen, Xanthe is handmaiden to Andromache, wife of the great warrior Hector, nursemaid to their child and she also nurses in the Blood Room (where the wounded are taken each day). One day Alistor is brought in and Xanthe falls in love with him. However, with a bit of help from Aphrodite, he falls in love with Marpessa and the eternal love story and all its problems is set up, exactly the same many years ago as it would be today.

What makes this book so endearing and delightful, even in the midst of the war and horrors that are described, is the matter of fact way the gods keep popping up. In the midst of the battlefield, wounded Alistor sees a tall dark warrior who tells him not to worry, not his time to die yet and he knows as he is Ares, God of War. While tending Alistor, Xanthe looks up as sees a child standing in the corner of the room with a quiver full of arrows smiling at her. It is Eros the bringer of love and he shoots an arrow into her breast.

Then there are three old ladies, the Gossips, who we meet chatting in the kitchen to a tall handsome young man who has dropped in, turns out he is Hermes, messenger of the gods. They are delighted to see him, a long time since a good looking man in a short tunic has been in their company....

"Greeks!" said Theano.... "I spit on the Greeks and all their works. Wouldn't trust one further than I could throw a javelin"........"Odysseus, he's the worst, or the best I suppose if you look at if from the Greek's point of view...he always had a kind word for us" "Younger then weren't we?" said Theano "And a bloody sight less wrinkled. Even Greeks are polite when chatting up girls with breasts like melons"

Funny and down to earth these three reappear on a regular basis, much like a Greek chorus, with their trenchant comments and views on the comings and goings and the daily battles of the siege. All the characters in this story, all names known to us all from the Iliad and the Odyssey, are shown to us as ordinary men and women caught up in the events of history. Though Troy is leavened with humour, it is a book to be taken seriously, the tragedy and futility of the war is made clear and because we have come to know and love everyone we meet, their ultimate fate is all the more horrible.

I took an 'O' level a long, long time ago in Greek Literature and remember studying the Iliad, the Odyssey and Herodotus and was one of the very few girls in my class who enjoyed this subject. Reading Adele's book has reminded me how much I loved it. Luckily I have the next one, Ithaka, on my pile and will be starting that one soon. I visited Cephalonia a year or so ago and on a boat trip sailed round Ithaca, the home of Odysseus and I am now seeing this in my mind's eye while writing.

I loved this book and was glad to read it on a wonderfully sunny Sunday where I relaxed and spent the afternoon on the sofa with this story.

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