Recently released in paperback, local author Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia was named by The Oregonian as one of the Top 10 Northwest Books. As always, Le Guin deserves the praise.
Lavinia is based on Vergil’s namesake character in The Aeneid. Vergil only gives her a minor role, allowing Le Guin creative license to flesh out Lavinia through her four stages as a woman: virgin, wife, mother and widow. Le Guin gives a voice to the voiceless, showing how influential women were in events, despite their oppression in such a patriarchal society.
Le Guin says in the afterward to Lavinia that she’s not attempting to finish The Aeneid but offer a “meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in his story.” She even has the poet speak to Lavinia through the first part of the book. They share information. She tells him about herself while Vergil tells her about her destiny.
The discussions between Vergil and Lavinia make one wonder about the distinction of art and life. By including the poet who wrote Lavinia’s destiny, Le Guin makes no attempt to disguise Lavinia from being a fictional character. Yet, on the other hand, she’s well developed with thoughts, ideas and feelings like a real person. Perhaps we are all characters fulfilling the destinies that some poet has already written for us.
Or, maybe, our decisions and our lives are what inspire the poet. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Although characters, the setting and the story mostly remain faithful to The Aeneid, Lavinia comments on how the poet got some things wrong, such as her hair color.
The rites, customs, culture and interactions between characters feel authentic and true to the historical period. Le Guin gives credit to several scholars on the last page, including Portland State history professor Karen Carr.
Reading Lavinia, which moves back and forth in time, and largely recounts tales about Aeneas and war, is similar to reading histories by such writers as Herodotus or Thucydides, except that it’s a fictional account from one character’s first-person account. Still, the pages and pages of war stories become somewhat tedious unless that’s something you’re specifically interested in.
It would have also been nice to see some of the other characters better developed. Lavinia’s mother’s motives are well depicted, but some of Lavinia’s friends, including Aeneas, seem a little flat or perhaps they just aren’t present enough in the book.
Le Guin has written dozens of fantasy and science-fiction novels and short stories for both adults and young adults. Her tales tend to explore myriad themes, including psychological and sociological norms, such as in her well-known literary classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”
Lavinia is an overall excellent addition to Le Guin’s already impressive literary accomplishments. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to be transported to another world right between the fall of Troy and the birth of Troy.