By Ursula K. LeGuin
Harcourt / 282 pages / $24
At nearly 80, Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the doyennes of science and speculative fiction. Her work has received the most important awards for her genre, from the Nebula to the Hugo, as well as the National Book Award and the Pushcart Prize. She is - to use a much overused, but in her case apt, term - an icon.
That said, LeGuin has not written a new work in a decade, although she's done a series of important translations, including one of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.
Now, after that long hiatus, devotees and new readers alike have an immensely important work - perhaps the masterwork of her career - to revel in.
There are few classics to rival Virgil's massive Aeneid, and LeGuin has written a worthy companion volume with Lavinia, covering - or rediscovering - the last six books of Virgil's masterpiece. In The Aeneid, Lavinia has no lines. She is described as nothing more than "a silent, shrinking maiden." And yet she becomes a figure of tremendous import in the final books of Virgil's epic work. Still, she is only that: a figurehead. Lavinia's personage has import, but no corresponding voice. LeGuin, ardently feminist in all her work over the years, gives Lavinia her voice in this mesmerizing first-person narrative.
In the story of Aeneas, leader of the Trojans, when the hero finally reaches Italy, after an endless number of exploits and torments (including the irrepressible harpies), he comes to Latium, where he hopes to establish a settlement that will become Rome. The leader of Latium, King Latinus, agrees. He has also heard from an oracle that his daughter, Lavinia, should marry a foreign hero: Aeneas. But Latinus' wife, Queen Amata, has other plans. She believes the leader of the future to be the Rutulian prince, Turnus.
Amata sees Turnus, her nephew, as a surrogate son, having lost her own sons to childhood illness. Amata is crazed with desire for both a son and a taste of power: Turnus offers both to her twisted mind. When Latinus announces that Lavinia will wed Aeneas, civil war breaks out and Aeneas and Turnus are pitched to battle each other.
Aeneas had previously been visited by visions of Rome's potential prominence under his rule and thus knows he must vanquish Turnus. His reward will be both Rome and the hand of Lavinia. In a final hand-to-hand combat, Aeneas kills Turnus; then he weds Lavinia.
But who is the prized Lavinia, eventual matriarch of Rome?
In LeGuin's telling of her tale, Lavinia is a thoughtful and complex young woman with an intellect all her own, irrespective of her parents' individual ideas about who she is and should be. She is more than just another humble and humbled virgin awaiting the betrothal foisted on her by her parents.
Amata believes the answers for a solid future for Lavinia lie in the arms of Turnus. But when Lavinia seeks answers for herself at the sacred springs - she has the gift of hearing oracles, like her father - she learns that she may not be in charge of her own fate after all. The portent of war - bitter and long-lasting - is foretold in her future, as is the inference that she must marry someone from afar. Aeneas.
LeGuin does more than just re-envision Lavinia's story. She answers Virgil through Lavinia, who speaks back. "He slighted my life in his poem!" she protests. Lavinia then tells her own tale of her world, the Italy of the Bronze Age, Italy with its muddy villages and Latin-speaking tribes who are, under her father, at peace until Lavinia becomes the nexus for civil war.
Perhaps the most compelling scenes in this extraordinary tale occur when Lavinia has a conversation with Virgil, as he is dying. Virgil tells her about her own importance in the founding of Rome - that she must marry Aeneas for the future to unfold as it is supposed to.
But Lavinia does not end with the betrothal, but rather with the new matriarch establishing the role of Rome in the future she once only imagined. In the end Lavinia comes full circle as dutiful daughter, wife and matriarch.
Lavinia is a beautifully crafted paean to one of the greatest writers who ever lived and his masterwork. Lavinia is equally a paean to the importance of women in the founding of Western civilization. An extraordinary, haunting and keenly wrought tale of love, vengeance and redemption, Lavinia captures - stunningly and unerringly - an era so far removed from our own as to be unimaginable. And yet LeGuin, who has imagined so many other worlds over the years for readers, brings it to vivid, startling life. A work of immeasurable merit, Lavinia ranks with Robert Graves' inestimable I, Claudius as a perfect tale of a vastly imperfect time. Brilliant.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
"If I was careful not to bring myself to my mother's attention I had nothing to fear. Sometimes, as I grew towards womanhood, she spoke to me kindly enough. And there were a lot of women there who loved me, and women who flattered me, and old Vestina to spoil me, and other girls to be a girl with, and babies to play with. And - women's side or men's side - it was my father's house, and I was my father's daughter."