Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Review of The Double Axe in Literary Review

Philip Womack’s novels have always woven legend with dark, compelling children’s fantasies set in the contemporary world. In The Double Axe he retreats fully into the dense shadows of classical antiquity to retell the Minotaur myth from the perspective of a teenage Cretan prince. This choice of subject has paid off richly.
Prince Deucalion Stephanos of Crete (known as Stephan), King Minos’s second son, has looked up to Androgeos, his older brother, all his life. But when Androgeos is murdered in Athens, a terrible price must be paid – a blood price, according to Myrrah, the fearsome high priestess who sees auguries in the split carcasses of sacrificial beasts. Myrrah has already called down a curse upon the House of Minos: “The stench of darkness is in your minds. And none of you – none of you – will escape it.” Suddenly elevated to the status of heir and regent, Stephan is acutely conscious of himself as young, unproved and second best. With the help of his resourceful sister Ari, however, he is determined to balk the curse, sift the truth from the court’s poisonous mist of rumour, and find his way to the heart of Myrrah’s mystery.

Womack’s language contains repeated phrases that resonate like Homeric formulae (the mysterious “lines filled with blood”, for instance, that reveal themselves, at length, to be the grooves and passages of the labyrinth itself.) It creates a chiaroscuro vision of bright joy and suffocating darkness, reminiscent of Mary Renault’s earlier Theseus story, The King Must Die. The remorseless zeal of the inventor Daedalus, creating a “machine, powered by sacrificial blood”, and the grim, numinous forces the spilling of this blood might conjure up are set against the simple delights of being alive and human: “herby breads,” “glistening olives and dates,” dancing, music, the love of family and the joy of growing into one’s own skin and learning one’s powers. Little Asterius, Minos’s youngest son, far from being a monstrous hybrid, is simply a disabled child, tenderly care for by his siblings and parents. There are dark forces at work here, but they do not spring from the expected source.

Womack’s work, as ever, is not for the squeamish – Pasiphae’s alleged liaison with a bull is discussed (though not in graphic detail) and reeking animal bodies are laid out, at times, as though the book’s pages are a butcher’s window. But this stark treatment feels truthful, not overdone, congruent with the warlike landscape of the classical setting, in which boys and men must hunt and fight, and girls and women lacerate their cheeks to mourn their loss. Womack’s fifth novel, unsettling, original and absorbing, shows him at the height of his powers.

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