By Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt. 279 pp. $24
With her new novel, Lavinia, fantasy and science fiction virtuoso Ursula K. Le Guin vividly fills some of the blanks in Vergil's Aeneid. She focuses this engaging novel on Aeneas's Latin wife, who is only sketchily depicted in the epic poem. In simple, stately prose that does no violence to Vergil's work, Le Guin presents the rough, unpretentious dignity of the ancient pagans. She also portrays daily life in the Bronze Age, some time after the 13th century B.C., when duty and responsibility glue the community together.
No one is idle. Princess Lavinia oversees the cleaning of the royal dwelling, the storing of grains, the carding of wool, the washing -- supervising and participating in the chores of running a sizable household. She is defined by her obligations to her family and her people, but she pushes back against those expectations.
"I hadn't given any thought to love and marriage," Lavinia tells us. "What was there to think about? When it came time for me to be married, I'd be married, and find out what love was, and childbirth, and the rest of it. Until then, it was nothing to me. . . . My realm was virginity and I was at home in it, unthreatened and at ease. No man had ever made me blush."
Of course, she is obliged to marry to cement an alliance profitable to her kingdom. But the oracle commands her to wed a foreign king. Here Le Guin employs Vergil as a ghostly time traveler who speaks to Lavinia in the sacred grove. "I am a wraith," he tells her at his first appearance. "Maybe I am a bat that has flown here from Hades. A dream that has flown into a dream. Into my poem." He describes Aeneas, his heroism defending Troy, how he rescued his father, son and other Trojans from the burning city, how they wandered at sea for years, how he met the Carthaginian queen Dido, who killed herself for love, and his arrival in Italy.
With this heroic story, the poet entrances Lavinia, who returns to the grove repeatedly to converse with him. Consequently, Lavinia knows everything about her husband before he arrives. The question -- how will she use this knowledge -- is suspenseful. The answer -- she will dismiss all her suitors except Aeneas, thus causing a war -- moves the plot briskly along. Indeed, there is plenty of action in Lavinia. Even her happy marriage is filled with musings cleverly ancient yet modern -- most compellingly on the expectations of women. By telling this story from its heroine's clear, forthright perspective, Le Guin has taken the cipher that is Vergil's Lavinia and given her a new life.
-- Eve Ottenberg is a freelance writer whose novel, "Dead in Iraq," will be published this fall.