Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Persian Boy
Mary Renault, 1972

I can probably trace my love of historical fiction back to Mary Renault, whose exotic tales of Ancient Greece fired my imagination at an impressionable age. The Persian Boy has long been my favourite, an emotionally charged and meticulously researched tale of the final years of Alexander the Great.

The story is recounted in first person through the eyes of Bagoas, Alexander's eunuch lover. In such bald summary it sounds sensationalised, but this central relationship is crafted with such care and intensity as to lift the novel far beyond the normal run of historical fiction. This is not costume drama: it is a love story which happens to be set in the past. The development of the relationship is charted against Alexander's conquest of the east and his eventual destruction by jealous rivals. Alexander himself springs to life, his great gifts offset by his equally great flaws. Curiously, Alexander is much more vivid in this novel than its predecessor, Fire From Heaven, in which he is the protagonist.

The Persian Boy seems to me an exemplar of historical fiction in two ways. Most importantly, the characters feel different. They may have a recognisably human array of feelings and foibles, but they exist in a world almost unrecognisable to a contemporary audience. Renault's characters are not twentieth-century men in robes - their mindset is at once alien yet plausible. The central relationship is not one the contemporary reader might be expected readily to empathise with, but it's carried off with such bravura that few will find it anything other than wholly compelling.

The other excellence of the book is the way in which Renault integrates her research. Almost every event is drawn from a primary source, but so smoothly are they integrated into the shape of the whole narrative that it doesn't read like a plot culled from Quintus Curtius and Plutarch. Renault uses her research as it should be used, in the service of the whole, and not an end in itself.

Few novels have drawn me as strongly into their world, both physical and spiritual, as The Persian Boy. Nearly forty years after its publication, it remains as vivid as the day it was published.

How has it influenced me?

The Persian Boy has much in common with fantasy, in its creation of a richly detailed world alien to the reader's experience. That Renault's world is historical and mine is not is a relatively minor distinction: in both cases the reader has to be convinced to invest emotional and intellectual energy to inhabit the writer's territory. The biggest lesson for me from Renault is that characters must be--credibly--of their own time, and not the writer's. It sounds obvious, but it's an insight many writers fail to draw. The Dog of the North would never have had a religious subplot, something important to the world of my novel rather than today's world, were it not for The Persian Boy.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Do your research, and then forget it
  • Having a viewpoint character who is not the "star" of the story can lend an interesting perspective
  • If you are going to the trouble of creating a setting very different to our own world, don't neglect to make your characters culturally different too


Alis said...

Hi, Tim - thanks for this recommendation, it sounds like a wonderful book and Mary Renault is somebody I've yet to discover.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, from what I know of your reading tastes and your writing, I think Mary Renault is someone you will like!

David Isaak said...

Mary Renault is a master, and all of her books are good reads, but The Persian Boy is in a class by itself.