A new favorite May 22, 2008
"Lavinia" is a thoughtful exploration of Vergil's shadowy wisp of a character, the daughter of the king of Latium, as introduced in "The Aeneid" as the fought-for bride of Aeneas. In the poem she has no lines and is not given much character beyond "tearing her golden tresses" at her mother's funeral.
Well no more. Le Guin, with deep love and respect for Vergil, decided to delve into the character and her world, suggesting what her life must have been like before the remnants of Trojan society came straggling up their river. First of all, says Lavinia, her hair is dark and always has been. Including even small details such as these, Lavinia tells us the story of her life, gently refuting the poet's portrayal of her while admitting she understands why she may have been perceived as nothing more than a meek, obedient daughter.
The writing here is like nothing I've ever read from Le Guin. It is much less dry than her usual style, and more immediately accessible. I've grown accustomed to switching on a certain mode in my brain for processing the dryness when sitting down to read Le Guin, but I found that wasn't necessary at all in this case. There is also a beautiful quality of airiness and earthiness to the atmosphere of the narrative; the whole imagined environment practically hums with life, and Lavinia is a deeply sympathetic and charismatic narrator.
The book is an exquisite portrait of Italy before Rome and before the Greek and Latin gods merged. It is also a meditation on gender roles in peace and especially in war, and observes the effects of warfare on the social fabric of a previously peaceful society. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.