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Ransom by David Malouf

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.”

Priam dressed up as a peasant and instructed to have a mule-drawn wagon containing gold and treasures as “ransom” in exchange for Hector’s body. Yet the very act put Priam’s dignity and honour, his life, that is yet again a ransom. While Achilles is dragging Hector’s body behind a burnished chariot drawn by fine horses, Priam, stripped of the symbols and comforts of kingship, sets out towards him on a wagon drawn by two mules: one aptly called Beauty and one, with “no special charm”, called Shock.

Like the king, the carter has his name Somax changed by circumstance and becomes, unwillingly – for who knows how the gods might react to the imposition of greatness? – Idaeus, the traditional royal herald. Somax’s austere life is essentially a Malouf’s creation in contrast to the opulent life of King Priam.

My favourite part of the story is Priam’s journey to Achilles’ camp and they are joined briefly by the garrulous god Hermes, a timelessly irritating fellow-passenger, but through his driver Priam learns to be ordinary and even find momentary happiness: to walk barefoot in a river, to eat griddle cakes, to share the grief of losing sons, and to exchange tales of ordinary lives. Somax sense of bewilderment in mixing with the great names of the war is palpable. In return, he introduces Priam to the world of idle chit chat which equally mystifies his royal self. Not forgetting the moment when Priam finally meets Achilles and states his mission, Priam’s plea for his son’s body brings a lump to the throat.

To those who knew this part of the Homer’s tale will know that this story met with a tragic end.

The book concludes with an Afterword – a note on sources and the inspiration for the book. In it, Malouf relates that he first heard the story of the siege Troy in primary school and was mesmerised by Homer’s tale. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of today’s primary school children think that Homer is just the name for a yellow, pot-bellied Homer Simpson!  

Rating: 3/5

No one, and certainly not a writer as talented as Malouf, can go far wrong with material like this.

Why, then, despite its many qualities, does Ransom disappoint? The problem is I don’t know.

It is suppose to be an easy read, since it is a slim book, but it didn’t engage me and I had to plod along just for the sake of finishing it. So, yes, in some ways it’s a book about anger, grief, revenge and the effects of war, but it’s not as good as Homer’s Penelopiad, retold by Atwood.

I am not reading this for any challenge and the book is not part of the Canongate myth series.

Hardback. Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2009; Length: 244 pages; Setting: Land of Greek Gods. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 25 June 2010

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


3 thoughts on “Ransom by David Malouf

  1. I really like these kinds of retellings, and though I’ve typically heard that Atwood’s “Penelopiad” is less good than her other works, it’s interesting to see that in this comparison, it comes out winner… I can see, though, how a book like “Ransom” might frustrate. I never understand how some short books can be so truly difficult to read…

    Posted by Biblibio | July 2, 2010, 12:13 pm


  1. Pingback: The Song of Achilles « JoV's Book Pyramid - April 28, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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