Gilgamesh by Joan London begins in 1918 with Frank Clark an Australian soldier in a convalescent hospital in England meeting Ada who is there ‘to visit the soldiers’. He invites her to come with him back to Australia, to ‘go far away to a country where there will never be another war’. Ada accepts the promise and they marry quickly but by the time they return to Australia their daughters, Frances and Edith are nearing school age. The Clarks take up land at Nunderup (a fictional area near Busselton) in Western Australia as part of the Group Settlement Scheme which granted land to groups of twenty or so settlers, often returned servicemen, to set up farms. The Clarks’ land is the least arable block in the settlement. They keep to themselves, rarely joining in the community life with the other families. The struggle to eke out a living on the farm takes its toll on Franks health. When he dies, Edith finishes school and takes a job as a maid at the nearby hotel, and Frances tries to maintain their failing farm as well as caring for their mother who is gradually retreating into her own world.
The main part of the novel follows Edith’s story. With the unexpected arrival of Ada’s nephew Leopold, an archeologist who has been working in Iraq, and his Armenian friend, Aram, the world opens up for Edith as she drinks in the tales of their travels. Aram tells Edith of his family who were expelled from Turkey and killed during the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and of his life in an Aleppo orphanage as well as of Armenia, the country he is willing to give his life to free from the Soviet Union. Leopold introduces Edith to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian poem telling of Gilgamesh’s journey mourning the death of his friend Enkidu. When the young men leave, all Edith is left with are memories of their tales, Leopold’s copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the knowledge that she is expecting a baby. Following the birth of her baby whom she calls James. she returns to the drudgery of work at the hotel, leaving Frances to care for Jim. Edith is struck by the idea that she must take Jim to Armenia where they will find Aram and so Edith and Jim begin their own epic journey from Western Australia to England and across Europe to Armenia as the world stumbles irrevocably towards war.
Edith’s journey has elements found legendary tales. At pivotal moments people appear who assist her in her journey – the farmer with his truck as she decides to leave the maternity hospital with Jim where she is being pressured to give him up for adoption, the brother of the hotel owner who finds a berth for her and Jim on a merchant ship, the carpet seller on the Orient Express on her journey across Europe. There is a dreamlike lyrical quality to London’s understated prose yet, at the same time, the detail of her descriptions are vivid, perfectly capturing the Western Australian landscape, the details of daily life in wartime in Armenia.
Gilgamesh is a memorable novel of love and loss, of broken dreams and endurance, and ultimately of hope.
A more detailed review can be found here.