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Lavinia    by Ursula K. Le Guin order for
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2008 (2008)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin paints in rich tones for her readers the full and spirited life of a young woman written off as a nonentity by Vergil, who slighted her saga though she played a key role in history. After all, Lavina was the matriarch of the dynasty that became the Roman Empire and - for a long time - ruled a significant part of the world.

Indeed, Vergil too plays a role in this tale as his wandering spirit enjoys repeated encounters with Lavina at a sacred place, Albunea. He wonders at - and deeply regrets - his fictional treatment of her life. Le Guin gives her Latin princess an unusual family background. She grows up very close to her father the king of all Latium, with whom she regularly performs the rites. King Latinus is over twenty years older than his wife Amata, but an effective, and decent ruler, whose lands have long been at peace. Amata goes mad overnight after the deaths of Lavinia's younger brothers when she is six years old. Afterwards she learns to be 'silent and meek' as otherwise her mother 'might remember that I was not my brothers and I'd suffer for it.'

As she grows (in Vergil's words) 'Ripe now for a man, of full age now for marriage', Lavinia has many suitors, the most pressing being her cousin King Turnus, who is favored by his aunt Amata. At age nineteen, visiting the salt beds by the mouth of the river, when Lavina spies 'a line of great, black ships, coming up from the south and wheeling and heading in to the river mouth', this is something she's long anticipated. After all, she's talked of the advent of Aeneas and his Trojans frequently with her poet (of whose storytelling she is often critical). And with the coming of the black ships, Lavinia inadvertently 'brings her people war.'

As she lays out the sequences of events that erupt into violence, Le Guin underlines the futility of war and the absurdity of such triggers as the accidental shooting of a stag. As war erupts amongst the Latin kingdoms, Lavinia - a young woman viewed as unimportant by Vergil, by her mother, and by most of the courtiers surrounding her father, but not by the Fates - joins the other women in treating the wounded and watching events unfold in horror and bemusement. As Vergil wrote, she weds Aeneas, bears his son Silvius, and lives every day of their short time together fully. But after the 'poem was finished', Lavinia must find her way without her beloved guide.

She does so successfully, and with her own child to protect, Lavinia finally understands her mother better. At one point, she asks herself 'Who was my true love, then, the hero or the poet?' - one man gave her a son, the other literary immortality. Now a modern Vergil, Ursula K. Le Guin, has turned this elusive figure into a real girl and woman in the not-to-be-missed novel, Lavinia, which I highly recommend to you.

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