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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fourth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of slang, and there are constant allusions to the Classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).

Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.
Renault renders sadness, anxiety, self-denial, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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