After having read The Odyssey by Homer, I then thought I could read Ransom by David Malouf. Otherwise, I had not had much exposure to Greek myths and literature, and so reading Ransom without The Odyssey first, seemed like a bit of a vacuum.
I have tried reading David Malouf before, and I think I chose the wrong book of his to start with. Ransom was quick, flowing, well-paced, great prose, and also great character development. All round, I really enjoyed it.
As you may know, Ransom is a closer look at Homer’s Iliad story about the siege of Troy. But Ransom elaborates on some of the barely-touched aspects of the Iliad. And obviously, because it’s a piece of modern writing, it has a very different pace and language. Yet the story itself stands, and the characters were believable.
I think it’s a worthy story, and well done. But the highest ranked critic of Ransom is negative:
David Malouf’s reworking of the climactic episode of the Iliad demonstrates that epics are no less susceptible than symphonies to being chopped up and repackaged in accessible, bite-size chunks. As slim and spare as Homer’s great poem is immense, Ransom starts at the moment when Hector, noblest of the princes of Troy, has been slain at the hands of Achilles, deadliest and most god-like of the Greeks. Savage with grief for his beloved cousin, Patroclus, whom Hector had killed, Achilles vents his rage and misery on the Trojan prince’s corpse. Dragging the body behind his chariot, so that it is left a mere “thing – bloody and unrecognisable”, he refuses either to have it burned or to ransom it.
The scene is set for one of the most wrenching episodes in world literature: when Priam, Hector’s father, travels to Achilles’ camp, falls to his knees, and begs for the return of the corpse. “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before,” he says. “I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
No one, and certainly not a writer as talented as Malouf, can go far wrong with material like this. As in the Iliad, so in Ransom, the moment when Priam finally meets Achilles and states his mission brings a lump to the throat. Both the lyricism of his prose and the delicacy of his characterisation enable Malouf to avoid the risk of bathos that so often stalks novelists when they try to update epic. He also manages to avoid another tripwire with his treatment of the gods: the immortals, though they manifest themselves throughout the novel, tend to do so elliptically, appearing on the margins of Priam’s vision, or else by revealing personal knowledge of a character that no mere mortal could be expected to know.
Why, then, despite its many qualities, does Ransom disappoint?
For me, it doesn’t. I didn’t want such a short piece of time to be a 400-page novel. This was bite-size, after The Odyssey, and left me with far more emotion and greater understanding than the former ever did.
Decide for yourself and get it here.