Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


by Joan London

“At once a very Australian dream and a universal one, the dream of exotic, talismanic places beyond the horizon. . . . [Gilgamesh is] a pleasure to read, [London’s] prose a seamlessly shifting blend of poetry, pathos and humor.” –Elizabeth Ward, The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 272
  • Publication Date June 24, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4121-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

The American debut from one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers, Gilgamesh is a bewitching saga of family, lost love, and the power of storytelling.

It is 1937. The modern world, they say, is waiting to erupt. On a tiny farm in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her mother and her sister, Frances. One afternoon two men, her English cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq.

Leopold and Aram captivate Edith with tales of exotic lands and cultures–among them, the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s years. She is captivated by their stories, and by the thought of a world far beyond the narrow horizon of her small town of Nunderup.

Two years later, in 1939, Edith and her young son, Jim, set off on a journey of their own, to Soviet Armenia, where they are trapped by the outbreak of war. This is the story of encounters and escapes, of friendship and love, of loss and acceptance. Beautifully marrying the intimate scope of a life with the enormity of war, Gilgamesh examines what happens when we strike out into the world, and how, like the wandering king, we find our way home.

Rich, spare, and evocative, Gilgamesh won The Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award alongside Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. As Cathleen Medwick wrote in O: The Oprah Magazine, “Bold and beautiful . . . [An] astonishing saga . . . A woman as epic hero? It’s high time.”

Tags Literary


“Strong and remarkably lovely. . . . London’s redering of her character’s innermost thoughts evokes Katherine Mansfield, while her uncompromising nature and adult sexuality brings to mind Alice Munro. . . . Reading Gilgamesh is like watching a magician who can do many things rapidly, expertly and all at once. It’s impossible not to admire the novel’s proficiency and it’s author’s promise.” –Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

“Bold and beautiful. . . . [An] astonishing saga. . . . A woman as epic hero? It’s high time.” –Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine

“At once a very Australian dream and a universal one, the dream of exotic, talismanic places beyond the horizon. . . . [Gilgamesh is] a pleasure to read, [London’s] prose a seamlessly shifting blend of poetry, pathos and humor.” –Elizabeth Ward, The Washington Post

“[A] compelling debut. . . .The epic scope of the novel is complemented by an extraordinary sensitivity to detail. From the intractable Australian outback to a shabby-genteel London rooming house, from the Orient Express to the Armenian city of Yerevan simmering under Soviet occupation, the settings glow with a dream like intensity, evoking both the allure of adventure and the ambivalent embrace of home.” –Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

“Compelling. . . . Personal strife and global perils combine to make Gilgamesh a remarkable study of a young woman’s most literal rite of passage, growing up, taking control of her life and refusing to be content with the narrowly conscripted world she has always known.” –Judith M. Redding, The Baltimore Sun

“Charming–and timely. . . .This ancient Iraqi story gives us some hope that humanity can find heroism not just in violence but also in building communities.” –Selina O’Grady, The San Francisco Chronicle

“With poignancy and restraint, London skillfully weaves together world events with personal intimacy, and blends the legend of an ancient king with the quest of a mother and hers son.” –Jean Patterson, The Orlando Sentinel

Gilgamesh is a quiet stunner of a book about growing up, leaving home and finding our way back.” –Colleen Kelly Warren, The St. Louis Dispatch

“An epic journey. . . .Her style is simultaneously understated and sumptuous; she illustrates with expert handling of the tiny details . . . yet London prefers to hint at big-picture events. . . .Wartime Europe, an all-too-familiar setting, comes alive in all of its anxiety, uncertainty, and horror.” –Scott Carlson, The Baltimore City Paper

“Haunting from the very start. . . .London is a master of description, creating vastly different environments out of few words, much as a watercolorist might suggest a landscape using only subtle images. . . .A good read and satisfying journey, London’s Gilgamesh is full of the spirit of place, as well as the rush of traveling in dangerous times.” –Michelle Jones, The Nashville Scene

“A lyrical prose narrative that explores the need for love, companionship, solitude, and the circular nature of the heroic journey called life.” –Robert J. Forman, The Salem Press

“London’s world is intense and intimate; there seems very little distance between the telling and the characters. . . . London’s writing is spare, sometimes enigmatic. Her characters often express themselves between the lines, and the story, for all its mythic parallels, is never predictable.” –Lynn Harnett, Portsmouth Herald

“A powerful literary debut with appeal to fans of Ondaatje and Dunmore.” –The Bookseller (Editor’s choice)

“Riveting in its strangeness and immediacy, evoking with stark power a world almost inconceivably isolated and remote. . . . London’s stark prose and command of a wonderfully maintained brooding atmosphere, however, make this an advent to remember.” –Publishers Weekly

“Explores numerous themes, including friendship, loyalty, mental illness, and the role of mourning in daily life. . . .London writes with power, vision, and poignancy. Highly recommended.” –Eleanor J. Bader, Library Journal (starred review)

Gilgamesh takes us from a small farm in western Australia to Soviet Armenia during World War II and back via the Middle East. . . . Despite its wide range and large gallery of memorable characters, Gilgamesh is not a long novel, just one in which every word counts.” –From the Miles Franklin shortlist citation

“A small masterpiece. Beautifully balanced and restrained, it is a journey in itself.” –Good Reading

“An engrossing story that bristles with local detail, whether in rural Australia, England, or the Caucasus. Stoutly eschewing sentimentality, London reveals her contrasting characters as flawed beings that thieve, betray, and hold deep grudges; however, the love that holds together Edith, Leopold, and the Armenian’s son overcomes all.” –Canberra Times

“Written in a wonderfully economical prose, alternatively bristling and resonating with suggestiveness.” –Stephanie Trigg, Australian Book Review (Australia)

“London writes with a deft, poetic economy that makes every page sharp and of interest. . . . The desire to explore uncertain notions of “home” may be a potent factor in the fiction writer’s drive to recuperate the past. . . . London’s strengths as a writer lie . . . in detailed observation and a fine lyric poise in the telling. These are considerable qualities and they ensure that the book is never dull.” –Amanda Lohrey, Age (Australia)

“London’s narrative is continuously articulated by unobtrusive yet carefully plotted references to titanic off-stage events. . . . These background events serve to emphasize the self-centered and individual aspects of her heroine’s quest. . . . Her prose is likewise unforced, adroit and understated, the equivalent of a classical string quartet rather than an Eroica Symphony in the Romantic mode. . . . Given the increasingly democratic nature of Western societies, how to elevate ordinary lives to a heroic or tragic level has been a noticeable preoccupation of literary writers for more than a century. . . . It is part of the overall restraint of London’s work that she raises this central question but does not force a dogmatic answer upon the reader.” –Tom Gibbons, West Australian (Australia)

“Gripping, lovingly-crafted. . . .Some books like to transport their readers into a different world. Joan London’s Gilgamesh succeeds on many different levels on this quest, both literally and metaphorically. . . . London is able to bring together disparate worlds and cultures, and then weave in a historically challenging time, the period after World War I through the 1950’s, all through the eyes of a young woman.” –Alin K. Gregorian, The Armenian Mirror-Spectator

“An exquisite book. The writing was so smooth and descriptions of Australia and Armenia were beautiful. This book will appeal to the same readers who enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and reading groups will be enchanted, too.” –Lionel Carbonneau, Tatnuck Bookstore, Worcester, MA, Book Sense quote


A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
The Age Book of The Year Award for Fiction
A Finalist for the New South Wales Premier’s Christina Stead Prize
A Finalist for the Western Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction
Longlisted for the Orange Prize
A Book Sense 76 Selection


Chapter One

Frank met Ada when she came to the hospital to visit the soldiers.

It didn’t suit her. She was supposed to chat and join in singsongs and pour tea. But she was clumsy and offhand and didn’t smile enough. She lacked the sense of charity that lit the faces of the other young women. That afternoon they were all wearing a white gardenia pinned to their coats and, as they entered, a nunlike sweetness filled the vast draughts of the room.

It was a convalescent hospital south of London, a gloomy country house requisitioned for the duration, where the soldiers, patched-up, jumpy, bitter, tottered and prowled like ancient temperamental guests. Frank shared a room with another Australian, an artilleryman from Melbourne, who wept like a baby in his sleep. Frank suffered from insomnia so it didn’t disturb him too much. He didn’t tell the doctors about the insomnia. Some were kind, but for some reason he found himself infuriated by kindness. He craved isolation. In isolation he would cure himself.

They were days away from Armistice.

On the afternoon that Ada came, Frank had expected to be discharged, on the train to London. His leg was officially healed: he’d been waiting all week for the order. Only boredom made him come downstairs for tea.

They should really never have met.

They were singing around the piano, `Over There’ and `He’s Coming Home’ and `We’ll Gather Lilacs’. The young women sang in fervid sopranos, harmonising with the men. Most of them, Frank thought, would have lost someone, husband, sweetheart, brother, in these past years. He noticed that Ada had left the group and was looking out a window. He went and stood beside her.

`A bit painful, this old stuff.’

`I never learnt the words.’

Outside was a tennis court, with the nets rolled up. Beyond it black-limbed trees held back the mist.

`What are you going to do when it’s over?’ He couldn’t help looking at her gardenia, desperately lopsided, which was about to slide off the generous slope of her bosom.

`I don’t know. Much the same I expect.’ She had a flat, composed way of speaking, at odds with her appearance. Her dark hair was so bushy that she had to clutch her hat when she turned to him. She had fiercely sprouting eyebrows, dead white skin, a little silken moustache. She wasn’t old, but like him, like all of them, she was no longer young. He had the odd sensation that she was the only teal person in the room.

`What would you like to do?’

`Oh I see, you are joking. Well, I would like to go far away to a country where there will never be another war.’

`That’s where I’m going!’

`There is no such country!’ The gardenia dropped and she was stooping down to it. Her hat fell off, and her hair uncoiled. Everything about her seemed ready to erupt. He’d never known a woman so precarious.

`There is,’ he said, crouching down beside her as she scrabbled for hairpins. `Come home with me.’

He found her odd, mysterious. She had been orphaned very young, grew up living alone with her older brother. Frank thought this might be the key to her: no one had taught her to be nice. Her brother had died early in the war, at Ypres. She lived with her sister-in-law and little nephew in the top half of a house in Cricklewood. The sister-in-law, Irina, was a White Russian. There were Russian lodgers in the bottom half of the house. It was an unconventional set-up, to say the least.

They had visitors at all hours of the day. Whenever Frank called, there would be a strange hat or cane or pair of galoshes by the stand in the hall. The visitors, men and women, were always Russian. He sat among them in the dark parlour and drank cup after cup of black tea from the brass samovar on the table. They were a lively crowd who soon forgot to speak English in front of him. Ada said little but did not seem out of place. Sometimes she played trains on the floor with her chubby nephew, her hair uncoiling down her creamy neck. Frank, a poetry reader, thought of petals falling. She hardly ever looked his way.

She only seemed to come alive off-stage, with Irina. He heard them laughing in the kitchen, or calling out to one another down the hall. Irina called her Arda, in the Russian way. Ardour. He didn’t trust Irina. She was the opposite of Ada, tiny, worldly, elegant in her widow’s weeds. She spoke excellent English, having lived in London since 1910. The others had only recently arrived from that debacle in Russia. She was in mourning not only for her English husband, but for her younger brother left behind in Russia, killed on the Russian front. Sorrow gave her a hard edge. There was a shrewd gleam in her eyes when she talked to Frank. He judged her to be clever and domineering, not his sort of woman.

She even dragged Ada off to the Orthodox Church with her. He found this out one Sunday when he visited, and for once there was nobody at home. One of the lodgers let him in, and insisted that he wait. Suddenly Ada ran in alone, in hat and coat, pink-cheeked from the cold. It was ridiculous, she said, standing by the door, as if continuing a conversation, as if she’d known he would be there, she didn’t understand a word of the service, she only liked the chants. She wasn’t religious, she added shyly, she was a free-thinker like her brother. This pleased Frank, because though raised strictly Methodist he had become an atheist during the war. And then still standing there, she burst out that she was tired of the gossip in the ‘migr” community, everyone knowing your business, she was tired of it all, she wanted to go away and make a life for herself.

Then suddenly she stopped. They had never been alone together before. She started to move towards him. They fell on one another.

There is no wedding photograph, but a few months later, in the spring, someone took a snap of them in front of the house in Cricklewood. They are leaning against a railing, their hips both slightly crooked to the left. Both are hatless. Frank, in cricket whites and pullover, has his hands in his pockets. This is as complacent as he will ever look. Ada rests one hand on his shoulder. Her pose is languid. Already she is pregnant with the first of their two daughters. They aren’t smiling but stare evenly at the camera. They look shy and proud and private. Is it the haze of a London spring that gives a dreaminess to the scene? They are proud of their dreams. They are going to take up land in Australia. Fresh air, honest toil, taking orders from no man. Because Frank can’t lose the habit of God looking over his shoulder, he feels that the War spared him for this. He has no money but he will find a way. Meanwhile he has promised Ada plants and animals she has never seen before, light so clear you seem to swim in it.

They feel bold and superior, like revolutionaries. They have both just turned thirty. Their passage out is booked.
* * *

Frank joined a government scheme to open up the wilds of southwestern Australia. Land, parcelled into blocks, was given to a group of twenty or thirty settlers who would initially work together to clear each home block and build each other a house. Every man was made a loan by the Agricultural Bank to get him started, repayable over thirty years. Of course, if all went well for you, you could end up owning your own land much sooner, in a matter of five or six years. The scheme was called Group Settlement.

In Frank’s group were other ex-soldiers, English and Australian. There was an ex-butcher, ex-blacksmith, ex-grocer, even an exsea captain. All of them had a passion to own their own land. Each farm was 160 acres. They were drawn by ballot. This made Frank nervous. He had a Methodist’s revulsion for gambling: he trusted only his own will.

By the time they came to live on their own block their daughters were nearly school age. A son was born but died soon afterwards, while they were still camping in a hut, waiting for their house to be built. `We will put this behind us,’ Frank said to Ada, to stave off his own panic. `We won’t speak of it again.’ He dreaded her weeping. She could go quite wildly out of control. He spoke softly. One of the Settlement women was outside at the fire, cooking dinner for them. The hut had a dirt floor and whitewashed hessian walls. He took her hand. Ada kept her eyes closed. `We have two fine girls.’

Their block was the outermost, cut off from the other farms by a belt of national forest. An afterthought, tacked on at the last minute over some government drawing board. It ran just beyond the dunes of the coast into bushy hillsides ridged with granite boulders and limestone caves. Close to the beach the soil became white with limestone. Only the wattles and melaleucas kept it from blowing into sand. Even at its furthest boundary, deep in the forest, you could hear the echo of the sea. It was the least arable of the blocks, but the most picturesque.

Their nearest neighbour was an old wooden hotel, the Sea House, built high on the escarpment to catch views over the forest to the ocean. On still afternoons Frank and Ada could sometimes hear the tock of a tennis ball and scraps of laughter from drifting guests. It was only half a mile away through the bush, but it was another world, isolated from the district, far away from the life and death struggles of the settlers. Frank despised the guests-city clerks on honeymoon-but Ada liked to take the girls with her and sit in the gardens, like a governess on a nature ramble. It was the only place with any romance in this country, she said.

The district was called Nunderup, but until 1927 it didn’t appear on any map because there was nothing there. Then by petitions and subscriptions the settlers managed to erect a wooden hall up the road from the Sea House, for meetings and dances and concerts and the occasional picture show. The milk truck stopped there and the bus to Busselton. This was the Nunderup Hall.

Frank and Ada, or the Clarks as they were known in the district, didn’t go to the dances or the pictures. They didn’t go to any church service either. They didn’t socialise with the other families in the area, the Lewises, McKays, Wards, Robertsons and Rileys. Nobody saw Ada for years at a time. When the girls went to school she turned up once or twice at the end-of-year prize-giving concerts but she didn’t help the other women with the supper. She sat in an empty row of seats, her lips flecked with saliva, nervous as a student who has failed a test. Her girls left the other children and sat on either side of her.

Frank came to meetings in the hall as the Depression worsened and more and more farmers couldn’t repay their loans. He spoke about being indentured slaves to the government, paying blood money to open up the country for them. He was a stirring speaker, Clarkie, he used to be a schoolteacher before the War.

He built the shed across the seasons of a year. He cut the trees down one spring when he was clearing the hill paddock. With a wedge borrowed from Bert McKay he cut them into slabs: it was a case of finding the right grain, and in the end, like skinning a rabbit, he got the hang of it. He dragged the slabs back to the home block while he still had the horse and chains. All summer they lay drying in the yellow grass. In autumn when the ground had softened, he dug a three-sided trench and stood the slabs up in it, side by side. He cut saplings for beams and poles and laid in a little hoard of corrugated iron. He hoped to roof the space before the winter rains.

But every day there was so much else to do, and nobody to help. He was methodical in everything he did, but slow and clumsy, teaching himself as he went. Some of the other men in the group had farming experience, or had worked with their hands in former life. Practical types. Some had already built a herd up, were picking up a nice little cream cheque each month. A bit of capital helped of course. Time and again before he took the next step he’d have to stop and hire himself out. A month picking potatoes down at Albany. A week here, a week there helping others to seed, in return for the loan of a team and plough. The ten cows he was entitled to from the government (to be paid for later of course) had never thrived. The two most adventurous had broken out and fallen down a gully. Another died calving. He thought he would go into pigs. But first he needed a shelter for them.

He’d never built anything on his own before. He didn’t like to ask the other men for one more thing, even advice. Late at night he sat up in the kitchen working out how to do it, drawing diagrams on the backs of Agricultural Bank envelopes.

Sometimes when he sat at the table and saw the lamplight pooled over his scraps of paper, he thought that this was the only terrain he could ever really work. Beyond the light were his books ranged along the top shelf of the dresser. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Scott, Stevenson and Dickens. He didn’t have time to read them now, but he felt their presence. It crossed his mind that this was where he was really most at home, in the idea of things.

Winter was well and truly over before he came to finish the shed, perched on the roof, hammering in the last nails. It was spring again, and still no pigs wallowed in the boggy earth of the clearing. He’d been working all day on the roof, it was late now, almost dark. He was always late. Across the clearing Ada and the girls sat watching from the verandah steps. There was a sense of ceremony in their waiting. All winter long the roofless shed had sat like a small ruined monument in their landscape. Even now it didn’t look quite like other piggeries. Even they could see that. It was too high, too tottery, like one of their skinny cows. None of them spoke.

Out of the corner of his eye Frank could see them on the steps. Their pale female faces, pale pinafores glowed in the half light. Maybe this was what made him lose concentration for a moment. Sitting there like a row of birds with their beaks open! He was dog-tired, stiff, sunburnt, from crouching all day up here. He took a swipe at the final nail and mysteriously-there were many mysteries in the course of Frank’s carpentry-smashed straight down on his thumb.

He dropped the hammer with a clatter, and fell foward, the whole structure swaying a little beneath him. He raised his head and howled God! The dog barked crazily at the foot of the ladder. He sat still, clutching his hand, his eyes closed. The little girls thought he was crying, and stole towards him as he descended the ladder. Ada came to meet him with a teatowel she had grabbed. Something in her face made him wheel away from her and stride off into the bush, grabbing the axe as he went. The dog sloped after him, its ears flat.

`Another pair of hands.’ That’s what he said to himself as he slashed his way, one handed, through the bush.

©2003 by Joan London. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

Gilgamesh is a bewitching saga of family, lost love, and the power of storytelling. In 1937, on a tiny farm in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her mother and her sister, Frances. One afternoon two men arrive, her English cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Leopold and Aram captivate Edith with tales of exotic lands and cultures–among them, the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s years. She is captivated by their stories, and by the thought of a world far beyond the narrow horizon of her small town of Nunderup. Two years later, in 1939, Edith and her young son, Jim, set off on a journey of their own, to Soviet Armenia, where they are trapped by the outbreak of war.

This is the story of encounters and escapes, of friendship and love, of loss and acceptance. Beautifully marrying the intimate scope of a life with the enormity of war, Gilgamesh examines what happens when we strike out into the world, and how, like the wandering king, we find our way home.

1. Today, in a time when suspicions, misperceptions, and acts of aggression among cultures have led us to war, the issues of the novel Gilgamesh are peculiarly relevant, even urgent. Think about and talk about the crossings of cultural boundaries in the story. Russia, England, Australia, Armenia, Iraq, Syria–all are explored by the characters. When is there a real understanding of another culture? When is a character blocked by the entrenched differences?

2. In Gilgamesh there are cycles of quests, with younger generations recapitulating earlier journeys. Cite some of these quests and revisitings by the characters. Leopold? Aram? Edith? Jim? Even Irina and Ada? In what ways does the past continually become present?

3. The Babylonian epic Gilgamesh provides the thematic analogue for the novel (you can find information on-line, and Penguin has a good translation). The epic, acknowledged to be our oldest literary masterpiece, prefiguring incidents and themes in Homer and the Bible, is truly a work in progress as ancient cuneiform tablets continue to be discovered, particularly in Iraq. It is the story of the quest for wisdom, for ways to lead a meaningful life, and for ways to confront mortality. It is a story of friendship, of family, and of learning from the gods. London interweaves the tale among characters whose concerns and behavior often echo the epic. Do you derive enough information from the novel to appreciate the author’s double vision? How does the book, the printed epic itself, become almost a character?

4. Prostitutes play an explicit role in the epic, and in the novel adultery and a threat of life in brothels is alluded to more than once. When does illicit sexual behavior become an issue? What is the result?

5. One of the primary themes of the epic, probably the central theme, is a human being’s struggle with the fear of death, his search for immortality. How do characters in the novel confront or even conquer this fear? Are there different kinds of ‘death” in the book? Consider Frank and Ada, their private despair. Think of other characters’ struggle with the loss of identity.

6. Aram and Leopold are quite different–in origin, temperament, and destiny. Yet together they form a complementary whole (as do Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the wild man, in the epic). How do they provide Edith with two parts of a whole? “Aram was stronger and more deft, Leopold had more knowledge” (p.31). What does Edith seek and derive from the pair?Not only does Leopold open Edith’s eyes, and make her more curious about the world, but he also confers on her the grace of listening. “Before he came it was as if she’d never learnt to speak” (p.31). How does this respect of Leopold, given and received, remain important throughout the book?

7. Edith reveals a slyness that pushes the borders of propriety. Indeed she becomes a petty thief in Australia. Are we to assume that in her push for freedom, as in war, all’s fair? Do the ends justify the means? How is this issue carried forward into her journeys to England and Armenia? Can there be moral absolutes for people living under oppression?

8. In the epic, Enkidu dies and “Gilgamesh sets off like an outcast or a holy man” (the story is recounted on pages 174-175). Edith wonders why she had heard the name “Gilgamesh” in a cafe in Yerevan. Leopold responds, “He’s a mythical figure. He belongs to everyone, everywhere. Take us, for instance. Aren’t we on a heroic quest?” Is this inclusiveness surprising for a story out of the Middle East? Do we need to go back to myths that seem to overarch the rigidity of some organized religions?

9. “Why did you come ”
“Because I was needed.”
“Nobody ever engulfed her like this. He was a country she’d come home to.” (p. 171)

How do we ultimately assess or explain the relationship between Edith and Leopold? They do not fit any conventional mold of male-female romance. How do they transcend the conventions?

10. For most of the novel, Jim has no voice of his own; he is interpreted by either Edith or the narrator. Does this distance contribute to his blending in with the epic myth? With his dark foreign looks he is always other, strange, “odar” in Australia. In Armenia at first, his language sets him apart. Is his final journey to the Mideast a search for roots and home? And Leopold as a surrogate father? Who else in the novel is perceived as “other”?

11. Dark hearts, unforgiving spirits, appear in Frances, Irina, and Nevart. Are there others? Do you see redeeming traits in any of these characters? Do they evolve?

12. Edith goes through a number of identities. Are there certain traits or occupations that keep coming back for her? What are they? At one point, approaching Batum on the coast of Georgia, Hagop gives Edith a black headscarf. It is meant as protective coloration, but the disguise appears otherwise to her. “In the salt-smeared window of the saloon she caught sight of herself and Jim. They looked dwarf-like and lost, like a snapshot of somebody’s children” (p.123). How does this moment serve as a metaphor for the whole journey?

13. Iraq is viewed as a goal and a refuge both culturally and personally. How is this true for Leopold? For Jim, ultimately? For Edith, the sanctuary is temporary, but significant. Along the Euphrates, the self-styled family of Edith, Leopold, and Jim enters into ancient life in the villages. “They were so tired that time seemed to slow, almost stand still. This was how they lived in villages along the Euphrates five thousand years ago, Leopold said. People raised goats and ate fish while great civilisations came and went” (p.177). Do you feel as if the travelers are entering into prehistory, into the myth?

14. “Comrade Stalin loves little children” (p.125). How does this notion aid Edith and Jim? There is other pervasive evidence of Stalin’s repression in Yerevan. Cite some examples.

15. When Frances pulls away from the greedy religious sect, she feels deficient that she has loved the land more than God. Explain. She begins to regard religion as a dangerous dark attraction, one she may have inherited from her father. “An appetite for moral judgment that she was always seeking to appease. She always felt watched. By whom? God or her father?” (p. 201). How does this propensity affect her relationships with others? Here and elsewhere in the novel, what is Joan London asking us to examine about appetites “for moral judgments’?

16. Various characters serve as touchstones for Edith. Who are they, and what assumptions of Edith do they test?

17. At one point Edith deposits her child and strikes out on her own, to move, to breathe unencumbered. She soon reverses and returns to her responsibility, but is the moment later repeated in some form? When does Edith feel deficient in her duty to other characters besides Jim?

Do you find it credible that Edith chooses to put herself and her child into certain danger in her voyage to Armenia? Is her motivation–doing it for love–enough to explain her journey, one that could be described as reckless? What were her options at home?

18. Wartime and covert operations inevitably set the stage for moral ambiguities. Which characters exemplify hazy gray areas of behavior? Which ones belie surface appearances? Who seems to be torn by split loyalties? Who remains cloaked in unanswered questions?

19. How does Leopold’s calling as an archaeologist provide insight, even poignancy, as we follow current events in Iraq?

20. Pragmatism and idealism lie in uneasy balance in the novel. Which characters might be described as idealists? Which are pragmatists or even cynics? Does anyone represent a fusion of these traits? What is the result?

21. What does Edith derive from her journeys? Do you see fundamental changes in her as the novel progresses? What are they? Do others see changes in her? Although she would dispute it, she is called “brave” by both Irina and Mr. Five Percent. What are the circumstances for their saying that?

22. Later in the novel Edith worries that Jim is wretched. She ‘searched and searched the past. What if despair was inherited?. . . His Armenian grandparents had been murdered. Aram had seen his mother die. Did Aram’s actions in Armenia amount to suicide? Did he die in despair?” (p. 244). How would you respond to Edith’s questions? Think, too, about the Holocaust and its multigenerations of victims. Have you observed examples of what seems to be inherited despair? Do we have hope in the novel that the cycles of despair may be broken?

23. Same-sex relationships including friendships are explored in various ways in the novel. Whose? The pederasty onboard ship is clearly exploitative, but the relationship Frances finally forges with Lee is a rich, mature one. What about Leopold and Aram? Jim and Gareth?

24. How is escape a salvation in the book? ‘she had only just saved herself and Jim by running away” (p.74). What is at stake at Matron Linley’s? When else in the novel is escape a lifeline? Is it the visiting boys who inspire Edith to feel “as detached and free as a traveler herself” (p. 46)?

25. Loss is a recurrent lament in the book. For instance, even though war news (rockets on London, Hitler and the Jews, the Russian front) penetrates Syria, “for Miss Anoosh it was still the Turks murdering Armenians. In this Miss Anoosh was like every Armenian Edith had ever met, starting with Aram. How you became aware of the place in their lives of loss, lost family, lost land. Of buried anger, for monstrous crimes unpunished, for the world’s indifference. It was always there, as if the end of grieving would be the final loss’ (p.185).

How is this theme of loss important throughout the novel? For Ada? Frank? Irina? Edith? Others?


The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian by Andrew George (translator); The Crossing Place by Philip Marsden; Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian; Passage to Ararat by Michael J. Arlen