The Short Version: Returning to the idea of the oral tradition that created the Greek myths we now find so engrained in our society, these “lost books” are apocryphal variations on the stories we think we know so well. There are the predictable tales – from the cyclops’ point of view – but also more divergent tales. Stranger tales. Sadder tales. Tales not of the Homer story but of the stories that spawned it.
The Review: What must it’ve been like to live in ancient Greece? To stand on the beaches of Troy and fight, day after day, in a war that was impossible not to feel? To cry out to the gods, believing they’d answer?
There’s something melancholic about this beautiful little novel. Perhaps it is that first story, where Odysseus finally returns only to see how age has worn down Penelope and he decides that it must be another trick or test – and so he leaves in the night and sails away from Ithaca once more. There was something quiet and not-quite-sad about the story. If Ann Patchett’s writing is like sitting by a stream in a forest, Mason’s writing in this book is like watching night fall on a porch of a mountain home.
The conceit is marvelous – taking the story we know so well and returning it to a more simplistic form. Reducing it to the basic original elements, in a way. The book opens with a note mentioning how Homer’s version of the story was simply the iteration that has survived – but that before it, the bits of the story had all existed in one form or another, in one order or another. As a result, this book was like apocrypha – variations on the story that make you realize that perhaps it wasn’t the story we all know. Perhaps Odysseus was really a coward. Perhaps he was a magus. Perhaps Helen was actually Odysseus’ wife and Penelope was the one stolen. What if, at the end of his life, Odysseus returned to Troy and found that memory is hardest to shake. What if Athena was and still is watching and smiling and guarding those brave warriors?
Rating: 5+ out of 5. All of these variations and all of these beautiful little stories add up to a collection that is a vivid reminder of things that have come before. Things that may be again. The way history can change – and the way we shouldn’t ever really truly trust the stories we’re told… but that we all need to believe in myth. That myth cannot and will not die. That Odysseus still wanders the world in the afterlife, happy as can be.