The first of the Clarion 2009 graduates to publish a novel has done herself proud. I’ve read it. I love it. Go out and get it.
Shauna’s novel is part of a Hadley Rille Books series of "archeologically-accurate novels about the daily lives of ancient people living and coping with significant crises." This one is based on the tale of Gilgamesh.
A word of confession, here: I’ve never read the Epic of Gilgamesh, except in summary form, and I had to look up the summaries to get an idea of how much Roberts has deviated from the original. Not much, it turns out. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon and The Firebrand, or LeGuin in Lavinia, Roberts takes the essentials of the legend as a starting point, and goes from there. It’s a wonderful question: what real events in the lives of real people could have inspired a story like this one? The result is stranger, sadder and sexier than the myth itself. I especially like how Roberts imagines Enkidu — how he became who he is, why he behaves as he does.
Although we get glimpses into the minds of Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves, the story is told primarily from the point of view of Shamhat, the woman sent to "tame" the wild man Enkidu. While various translations of the original suggest that Shamhat was a temple prostitute, Robert’s archeological analysis suggests that that belief is an anachronism from the much later time when the Epic was composed. In Uruk at the time of the legend, Shamhat is more likely to have been a priestess of Inanna, and so she is in this novel.
It’s fun to read stories told from alternative points of view. From Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead to Bradley’s two books mentioned above, we love to think that we’re getting the "inside scoop," the part the party-line didn’t tell us, and that’s one of the joys of this book.
Another is the archeological project itself. The Mesopotamian world of this novel is so real you can taste it.
The characters are well-drawn and compelling, especially Shamhat, Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Zaidu, the hunter Shamhat meets on the way.
I knew that Shauna was a medical writer as well as an anthropologist before I read the novel, but it hadn’t occurred to me how useful her medical knowledge would be in interpreting the Gilgamesh myth. I’ll leave out explanations because they’d be spoilers, but suffice it to say that several things came into sharp focus because of physiological truths, never stated explicitly but clear as day.
All in all, this novel is a terrific read. I started it on the plane home from California, and couldn’t put it down after I got home.