The Praise Singer - Mary Renault 3.5 – 4 stars

Mary Renault’s _The Praise Singer_ is another highly enjoyable visit to the world of ancient Greece. This time we have left the heroic age of her consummate Theseus series (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea) and entered the early classical period of Athens during the reigns of the tyrant Pisistratos and his heirs as seen through the eyes of the poet Simonides. This turns out to be something of a golden age for Athens and the arts, at least according to Simonides, which lies precariously on the edge of political upheaval and, ultimately, the coming storm of the Graeco-Persian war.

Simonides, the ugly but gifted child of a wealthy landowner on the small and severe island of Keos, tells us the story of his life as he grows from a provincial outcast into a shining star in the cultural centre of the Ionian world. He is an amiable narrator, seemingly unafraid to tell the truth as he sees it, and embodies almost equal parts perceptive insight and naïve simplicity. Given that this is a first-person narrative we obviously see the events of Simonides’ world through his eyes and thus the events that make up his life are central to the story, and yet I also had the sense that however much his life may be the focus of the tale and even be a not insignificant part of the cultural centre of his world, he is still much more of an observer than a participant in what we see. What I mean by that is that while Simonides was in no way a grey or lifeless character I still felt as though it was his world, and not the character himself, that took centre stage in the story. Simonides is also never a mystery to the reader, but I think that is because he is presented as a very straightforward man, a plain-speaking one whose position on any subject is able to be known without needing to ask. This simplicity of character means that there are times that the significance of events, and especially the nuances of personalities, can be overlooked by him until he sees them in a new light after events have fallen out in an unexpected way. The fact that the story is told as a memoir by Simonides as he looks back from old age on the various events of his life lends itself nicely to this nuance of his personality. As is perhaps likely to be the case with any tale set in ancient Greece the story is something of a tragedy, but it is not so much a personal tragedy for an individual brought on by hubris (though that does certainly play a part in things, as it must) as it is a tragedy for a people and a way of life subject to the vicissitudes of time and fortune.

Renault explores many themes in this novel: the unfairness of a human nature which by default castigates ugliness and praises beauty; meditations on the nature and purpose of art as well as its abuses; the precarious nature of human society and the seemingly small, and even personal, incidents that can lead to the downfall of an entire culture; and the serenity that can be found in remaining true to oneself and one’s principles. Aside from these themes the story is worth reading simply to enjoy Renault’s fluid mastery of her prose and her vivid depiction of a long-gone world. I will admit to having enjoyed the Theseus books more, I think that was at least partially because the shading between the natural and the supernatural was still very ambiguous in those and the mythical was coinciding with the historical in a fascinating way, whereas here we are in a much more ‘modern’ and almost purely historical setting where, if the gods are not exactly disbelieved in, they are certainly treated with much more complacency. I sometimes felt as though Simonides’ point of view was occasionally a little too restrictive, though I can’t really count that as a fault since it was really an expression of effective character building and was also inherent in the format Renault chose for her tale; really this was more a case of my own desires not always coinciding with the author’s purpose.

All in all, though, this was an excellent tale that immerses the reader into a specific era of the Hellenic world with vivid characters and a quick, fluid pace. Definitely recommended to lovers of well-written historical fiction and the world of ancient Greece.