Book review by James McCaughey
Daniel Kelly. The Fall of the Phoenix. Olympia Publishers. 2018. 244 pp
ISBN: ISBN : 978-1-78830-195-4
As many of us may know, the Iliad, Homer’s great poem about the fall of Troy, stops short of the fall of that city.
It ends with the death of Hector who, in Homer’s telling of the myth, embodies the city and represents its life, and therefore his death presages that of the city.
Everything that happens after it will be just the spelling out of the implications of his death, which, in a sense, readers already know.
So Homer does not go there.
This has not prevented many poets, writers and storytellers moving into terrain from which he withdrew – filling out those events about which Homer has remained silent and inviting us to experience them.
(Homer himself did visit in his great sequel, The Odyssey. Odysseus is being entertained by the Phaiacians on his journey home and the singer-poet Demodocus enters the feast; Odysseus requests that he sing the tale of the sack of Troy, starting from the moment that the Greeks lurk within the Wooden Horse, about to issue forth and pillage the city.
This draws us into the zone about which Homer in his first poem held back, the sack of the city, that archetypal and all too real catastrophe that threatened all in the ancient world – the consequences of which we have seen played out in terrifying detail in recent times in Iraq and Syria).
Other poets followed; notably the playwright Euripides, who imagines the moment after the fall of the city, when the Trojan women are herded into the ships to face a life of slavery and all that it connotes. He staged that play in the very year that his audience, the Athenian people, had mounted a huge expedition to sack the city of Melos.
Then, after Euripides, other writers gratified mankind’s endless appetite for romance, working out who married whom among those who survived the war.
Enter this terrain a new writer, Daniel Kelly, fresh from Creeslough in Co Donegal, as fresh as the bread he used to bake in the first of his careers.
Now a writer. And a good one too. Fearless, imaginative and eloquent, with an unshakeable faith that he can enter this ancient terrain and re-imagine it, create from it a vivid presence and invite us to inhabit it.
Kelly starts where Homer – almost – ends with the great combat between Achilles, the greatest Greek hero, and Hector, hero of the besieged city. Or rather the non-contest. In the well-known scandal of the Iliad, Hector does not hold his ground, but flees around the walls of Troy.
Not in Kelly’s version.
With a splendid act of re-imagination he surrounds both heroes with a ring of fire so that neither can escape or have a future, but must slog it out till one man dies.
Here and throughout the novel, he recreates the ancient battle narrative with originality, passion and fearlessness – and a great eye for detail.
For the modern reader of Homer, reading battle narratives can be a challenge. They are a genre Homer’s audience knew well and in which they can follow his every move. For us it is more difficult.
Not when we are in Mr Kelly’s hands.
He enters this terrain with a gleeful energy and vivid imagination, drawing the modern reader to a place where he or she can inhabit those ancient contests.
Starting from there, he gives himself a splendid, almost scary, freedom with his wider narrative, changing the sides on which some of his leading characters fight – can you imagine a greater transgression than that? – and uses that freedom to carry us into the chaos and unpredictability of a city awaiting its fall.
We are, like the inhabitants of that city, uncertain what will happen next.
Perhaps not every reader will recognise all these bold transgressions. Perhaps it does not matter. The foreground of the writing is so vivid and energetic, the detail of its telling looms so large that it becomes a sufficient world, dazzling and ever-changing.
Will all readers, absorbed in that detail, always know just where the wider narrative is heading? I sometimes found it a little difficult to know myself.
But great fun was had along the way.
Add the pleasure of encountering a gifted new writer.