Monday 8 July 2024

Guest review by Annie Garthwaite: GLORIOUS EXPLOITS by Ferdia Lennon


"If you read one book set in the classical world this year, make sure it's this one."

Annie Garthwaite grew up in a working-class community in the North East of England. She studied English at the University of Wales before embarking on a thirty-year international business career. In 2017 she studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Warwich University and during two years of study, wrote her debut novel Cecily which was published by Penguin in 2021.

Cecily was named a Top Pick by the Times and the Sunday Times, a Best Book of 2021 by independent bookshops and Waterstones and has recently been optioned for television. Annie's second novel, The King's Mother, will be published by Penguin this month. 

If you read one book set in the classical world this year, make sure it's this one. Smart, pitch perfect and darly, darkly funny. Ferdia Lennon writes characters you'll love and despair over - and dialogue that cracks like a whip.

There's been no shortage of classically-set novels in recent years. Most, written by female authors, have retold the stories of great women of myth and history who have been sidelined or vilified by a patriarchal agenda. It's a rich and worthwhile vein within publishing that I happily celebrate. But I can't tell you the sense of refreshment and enjoyment I felt when I read Ferdia Lennon's remarkable debut! Lennon's heroes are male and anything but heroic. Lampo and Galen are, in fact, the Likely Lads of the ancient world: two hapless, hopeless unemployed potters who share little other than a lack of direction and a love of verse - of Euripedes mostly.

But Euripides, of course, is the poet of their enemies - of Athens. Get ready, here comes the history bit.

Glorious Exploits is set in the Sicilian city of Syracuse in the fifth century BC. The Peloponnesian Wars are raging and for the moment at least, Athens is down and Syracuse up. After a failed invasion, the Syracusans have inprisoned dozens of Athenian soldiers in the disused limestone quarries on the edge of the city and left them to starve their way through a Mediterranean summer. Enter Lampo and Gelon, whose hunger for poetry is matched only by their fecklessness.

So Gelon says to me, 'Let's go down and feed the Athenians. The weather's perfect for feeding Athenians.'

And so the novel begins - with an exchange of bread and cheese, a few olives, for snatches of Euripides, morsels of the poetic beauty Gelon craves. Lampo - our narrator and Gelon's rogueish sidekick - is along for the ride. They are the perfect comic duo, and the humour is dark as pitch. It would, after all, be hard for it to be otherwise when men are starving, or when other Syracusans -more hungry for vengeance than verse - visit the quarries of an afternoon for the sheer satisfaction of beating men's brains out.

Eventually, Lampo and Gelon extend their ambition to a full production of Medea, along with Euripides' newest tragedy, The Trojan Women, a story of unremitting misery that speaks of the aftermath of Troy's destruction by the Athenians and the massacre of its men. By choosing this play, Lennon is able to investigate compelling ideas about power reversal and the questionable benefits of empire building. In short, he gives us the Athenians, once great conquerors themselves, as helpless captives, made to play versions of their own victims for an audience of their own conquerors. Life doesn't get much bleaker. Back to the history for a moment: the imprisonment of the Athenians in the Syracusan quarries is recorded by the historian Plutarch, who tells us that some of the captives survived and made it home. They report that they were fed, and eventually freed, in exchange for verses - for rehearsing what they remembered of Euripides' works.

This historical nugget, Lennon reveals, was the inspiration and starting point for his novel. Until he happened upon it, he'd been planning a sprawling epic retelling the whole of the Peloponnesian Wars with a cast of thousands, but he suddenly found himself asking, 'Who were these Sicilians who were so obsessed with the Athenian playwright that they wold feed their enemy to hear his poetry?I couldn't stop thinking about it, so one day I found myself writing: So Gelon says to me...But who was Gelon, and who, for that matter was even speaking? I hadn't a clue, but I was certain of one thing. I was going to find out.'

Glorious Exploits is published in hardback by Fig Tree. The paperback will be published in January 2025.

Annie Garthwaite's Cecily is published by Penguin and The King's Mother by Viking.

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