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I’ve just finished ‘Gilgamesh‘ by Joan London. This novel was shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the Dublin Impac. It’s also been published in Europe, the UK, and the USA.

The title of the book comes from the ancient poem of the same name, which is thought to have been written on stone tablets around 700 BC, making it the oldest surviving piece of literature. It tells the story of a Mesopotamian king who sets off on a journey in search of immortality. He doesn’t find what he is searching for, yet he finds contentment.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is the story of young Edith Clark and her son, Jim, and their journey to find Jim’s father in Armenia during the lead-up to World War II. The story begins with Edith’s parents, Frank and Ada, leaving London for Australia just after World War I. Frank joins a government scheme for repatriated soldiers and takes up a parcel of land in Nunderup, in the southwest of Western Australia.

Frank and Ada have two girls, Frances and Edith, and a son who dies shortly after birth. Frank succumbs to illness, and soon after, a cousin, Leopold, and his Armenian friend, Aram, arrive from the Far East to stay with Ada and the girls.

Frances is rather straight-laced, but Edith is captivated by the strangers—the way they dress, their polite manners, their foreign smells. Through them, she glimpses another world, another life. They begin to escort her to and from her job at the neighbouring hotel, the Sea House, and as she gets to know them, they become more and more alluring.

‘She woke each morning with a start, a leaf tapping at the window, something is waiting for you … She lay listening out for the sounds of the men. She thought she’d hardly slept and yet she felt washed smooth as a morning beach.’

 

‘She had seen Aram rise up out of the iron tub on the verandah, his satiny shoulders, his tight boylike buttocks, his whiplash spine. They were strangers and yet she felt close to them, so close she could sense wherever they were and what they were doing. As if now that they ate the same food, breathed the same air, they were part of her. All the habits and needs of their bodies had become familiar.’

The visitors return to Europe, and Edith is left alone and pregnant. Thus begins her own journey. Like Gilgamesh in the ancient poem, she travels in search of something tantalising yet elusive—love and a feeling of belonging. I won’t say whether she finds it, but her journey from Australia, to England, Armenia, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and throughout the Mesopotamia, is a great read.

The story is told simply, but the prose is delightful, full of exquisite phrases, like:

‘Their breath, raw and vivid, filled the house.’

 

‘Strange how one small object could seem to hold all the light in a room.’

 

‘He was a country she’d come home to.’

I loved this physical description of one of the characters:

‘Now her hair was silver, swept into a turret at the crown of her head. She was full chested as a dove, and walked with her head held high and her shoulders back. Her skin was velvety and pale and crinkly like the back of an old rose petal.’

Not only is this novel a delight to read, but it is richly layered. It’s been analysed by many already and I couldn’t hope to do it justice here. I found these notes by Robyn Sheahan-Bright to be really helpful.

This novel can be enjoyed at any level of sophistication. On the surface, it’s an epic story of a young girl’s travels, yet it’s also a multi-layered literary text. It’s one of the best Australian novels I’ve ever read—a masterpiece.

Gilgamesh published by Random House, 2002  $19.99

Other books by Joan London:
Short Story Collections: Sister Ships (1986), Letter to Constantine (1993), The New Dark Age (2004)
Novels: The Good Parents 2008

This is my 7th Review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014. For my other reviews, see here.

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