It is 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War 2. A young Australian woman and her baby make the near impossible journey to Armenia to find the baby’s father. It is a journey based on love, and romantic idealism. It is a pilgrimage; an epic story of courage, human dignity, and loss. Joan London’s Gilgamesh follows the story of Edith and her son Jim, as they search for meaning, and a sense of belonging in their lives.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Joan London
Picador Australia, July 2001
ISBN 0 330 36275 5
It is 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War 2. A young Australian woman and her baby make the near impossible journey to Armenia to find the baby’s father. It is a journey based on love, and romantic idealism. It is a pilgrimage; an epic story of courage, human dignity, and loss. Joan London’s Gilgamesh follows the story of Edith and her son Jim, as they search for meaning, and a sense of belonging in their lives. The reference to The Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a visit by their lively English cousin and his Armenian friend to Edith and her sister’s sleepy Australian farming town of Nunderup, South-west Australia. Leopold and Aram spoke of their own travels around Mesopotamia in Aram’s taxi where they imagined themselves as the young king and his friend Enkidu, embarking on their heroic quests, Leopold showing off his own prized copy of the oldest known work of poetry. The impact of this visit on the life of Edith was dramatic, setting off a kind of hunger and wanderlust which would change her and those around her.
Joan London has won a number of prizes, for her previous two short story collections, including the coveted Age Book of the Year for Sister Ship. The anticipation for this, her first full length novel, was great. Gilgamesh fully lives up to the expectations surrounding its release. London’s writing quality is delicate and rich, combining a strong clear, easy to read linear narrative, with descriptive introspection. The narrative voice is third person, but the point of view changes subtly from Edith’s to Jim’s, with an occasional foray into the point of view of Edith’s immigrant mother Ada, her Australian father Frank, and her sister Frances. The tone of the novel is, as is the case with many Australian novels, quiet, relying on hints of dialogue, and description, to convey character, setting and plot. The main character Edith, is well created, and believable, despite her extraordinary courage and determination. The combination of the daily ministrations of Edith’s quiet and mainly empty life in Nunderup, with the dangerous journey to Armenia works beautifully, as does the way in which those daily details once again become part of her life, even in war-torn Armenia. The recognisable strands of aspects of both her father and mother appearing in Edith’s personality, make Edith seem real, and the way in which she lives out aspects of their own thwarted dreams forms a neat parallel with her son Jim’s longings, and ultimate journey, and its reference to her and his missing father Aram.
One of the bigger themes in the novel is the bigotry which is rife in small town Australia. The novel begins with musings of the cab driver Bickford; his categorisations, and the way he puts things into opposing pairs: “fat and thin, old and young, dark and fair”, simplifying, and classifying so that the deeper, more subtler understandings are lost, rendered unnecessary. There are many other instances of prejudice, from Ada’s loneliness; her inability to do Aussie things like bake scones, or swing her newborn in a basket from a tree while bringing the harvest in, like her neighbour Violet McKay, “as good as a man”. There is the prejudice against the poverty which subdues Edith; Madge’s superiority gleaming, as she docks Edith’s pay, or puts her in her place. There is the smallmindedness, and rightousness of Matron Linley and Dr Bly, as they make decisions about what is best for Edith and her son. However, bigotry isn’t only felt in Australia. Edith experiences marginalisation against her sex as she hides on Touchpole, early in her journey, and has to guard Jim against the lechery of Cookie and the others, despite her seasickness. Edith’s youth, vulnerability, “anglo-saxon fairness”, and femaleness, also becomes a brand as she travels through the middle east. Mr five percent’s proverb: “In the between a Woman and the World, Allah will always back the World?” (114), reminds her how precarious her life is, and how easily she could be disposed of: “What was her story in the great swirling darkness of the world? The old man in the train could take her life and use it and throw it away.” (117). There is Nevart’s prejudice against Jim: “a strange child” good only for Industrial School, where he nearly ends up in Australia, and of course the extensive bigotry which Jim has to face from his classmates, and teachers; particularly Sir.
However, despite the marginalisation and racism of all types, there is also, and always, the permanence of friendship, and love. From the brief moments with Aram, to the more enduring love between Edith and Leopold, Edith and Hagop, and even the less idealistic relationships between Hagop and Nevart, Frank and Ada, Edith and Lawrence, Jim and Leopold, there is something which defies the prejudice, and lives on. Above all, there is the love between between Edith and Jim, a partnership and understanding which goes beyond words, beyond loss, and beyond the limitations of daily life. It is this love which gives the real meaning to the story, and which always triumphs over the small mindedness of the Sirs and matrons. This love provides the underlying basis for courage, and enables Jim and Edith to ultimately find some sense of home, even if that home is only a state of mind, or quiet acceptance of life as it is. Jim’s own journey is left open, and perhaps there will, one day, be a sequel, or further novel following that story through. In the meantime, London’s Gilgamesh provides a wonderful, engaging, easy to follow story which leaves the reader with a sense of something big – the real meaning of the epic; the love and friendship which provides immortality.