Online Edition: Spring 2003

Gilgamesh by Joan London

Gilgamesh

Joan London

Grove Press ($23)

by Bonnie Blader

When I taught English to high school students, I used to ask of each male protagonist we encountered, "Could this character have been female? Could this have been a woman's story?" Of Holden Caulfield, of Conrad's narrator in The Shadow Line, of Camus's stranger, of Knowles's Gene Forester in A Separate Peace, students repeatedly said no, no, never--these were not women's stories.

Edith, Joan London's protagonist in her novel Gilgamesh, has internalized the same prohibition, despite growing up outside local conventions in Nunderup, Australia. Her father is dead, and her mother, unable to "take the life," is useful only in calling in the "chooks" at night; she and her sister scrape out a thin life on an unforgiving spit of land overwhelmed by the sound of the sea. Although unschooled, Edith is aware of a yearning to find "her story in the great swirling darkness of the world." It is when the visitors come--her cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend and driver, Aram, smelling of spices as exotic to her as the ancient cities they describe--that Edith has words for what the world seems to insist upon: "She had no part in the adventure. Women had no freedom to go adventuring."

Gilgamesh, however, sends Edith on a journey as improbable, and as full of youthful willfulness and naivete, as any archetypal journey in epic literature. Her baby son Jim, who is held up at birth and "spanked for being her child," is the vehicle of her final break with Nunderup: he is "a weapon in her arms, a source of power." She will go to Armenia--a place no more real than the color green on a map Leopold showed her--to reunite with Jim's father, Aram. It is 1937; she'll need the luck of the gods and the resources of her own "childhood solitude" to survive.

Underscoring the mythic quality of the story are chance encounters that feel like both providence and dream. Bickford, a "local carrier" in Nunderup, shows up in his jeep at the maternity hospital to smoke a cigarette just as Edith realizes she must take Jim and flee if she is to keep him. London marks this "the first of her and Jim's escapes"; in England, Leopold's mother sees that her niece won't be stopped, and hands her an envelope of money on which is scrawled, "The gods love those who are brave." The final section of the novel begins with the question, "Why did you come?" and the answer, "Because I was needed."

London can be usefully compared to Marilynne Robinson, who in Housekeeping also created female characters profoundly outside the conventions of the lives lived around them. Both writers, too, share a style marked by restraint. London keeps her sentences short; visual imagery is intensely rendered, yet compressed; Edith travels in closely noticed hermetic worlds. Because she is so unreflective, the reader isn't sure what she will do. She is authentically vulnerable; she moves in the direction of freedom and agency without a sense of consequence. All she has is her core. She is, in this, like Enkidu form the original Gilgamesh--a child of the wild. Of all of the doubles offered in both works--Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Leopold and Aram, Edith and Aram, Edith and Jim--it is the double of Edith the untaught and at risk and Edith in possession, at last, of herself that matters most in this beautifully realized work.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents