The Songs of the Kings (Unsworth)

This retelling of the Iphigeneia in Aulis myth is remarkable. Unsworth unpacks the operatic plot of the story and makes it human. Here are familiar names – Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, etc. – but here they fully human. They have motives, flaws and humor. Consequently, there are no heroes here; nor are there any innocents. I can’t say much about the plot without becoming entangled in spoilers, but Unsworth, as he always does, brought me completely into the world that was at times both familiar and frightening.

He succeeds on another level here with such precision that I was compelled to check the publication date (2003). This is, I think, the most political of the Unsworth novels I’ve encountered. A weak leader, interested in pomp and circumstance, is manipulated by those around him whose interests are far from political or patriotic; they are, instead, financial. It is, in this story that may also be considered a parable, about who tells the better story (here represented by The Singer). In case it’s not clear yet, I think Unsworth returned to one of the oldest myths in order to comment on the myth makers who created a story in order to start the Second Gulf War. A loose coalition of the self-interested lets slip the dogs of war and much blood ensues. And, like Calchas the diviner, we should have seen it coming.

Historical, current, and true. Another great Unsworth novel.


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