Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2010

Ransom, by David Malouf

Phew!  it’s just as well that David Malouf has set his brilliant new novel back in Ancient Troy or I would have created a real quandary for myself! Last year I read Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath, loved it, and declared it my pick for the 2010 Miles Franklin award.  That’s a gripping book, firmly grounded in Australian contemporary life yet appealing also to our fascination with the ancient wilderness of Tasmania.  Well, Ransom would have to be an equally worthy contender for the MF – if not for the rules which preclude it as an entry:

The Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.  (MF Trust website).

Homer’s epic poem, on which Ransom is based, is well-known to anyone who reads the classics.  (Though I was surprised to discover that The Iliad is not included in 1001 Books You Must Read whyever not??)  I read it many years ago (at university) but I re-read it in the Robert Fagles transation while I was away on holidays (click here to read my impressions about it) because I wanted to be able recognise how Malouf has reworked it.  That’s not necessary of course: you can read Ransom without knowing anything about The Iliad at all – but it makes a very special book even more entrancing to be familiar with its source.

What is most striking about the difference is the way Malouf humanises the characters.  Homer delivers heroic ‘types’, and the reader is not really privy to their innermost thoughts and fears.  But Malouf takes us into their hearts and minds – he shows, for instance, how the burdens of kingship weigh heavily on Priam, and how his subjects – especially his surviving children – can’t reconcile the poignancy of his needs as  a grieving father with his role as a dignified king.  For them, it matters intensely that he maintains a regal position; his subjects look to him as King as part of their identity.

‘Sir, you have for the whole of your life been a king.  Ordinary desires and needs and feelings are not unknown to you – I know that, you are my father; but you have, you can have, in your kingly role, no part in them – they are not in your kingly sphere.  And are you now to wring Achilles’ heart by appealing to those very feelings of the ordinary man it has been the whole business of your life to remain aloof from? (p84)

Well, as we all know, Priam sets off out into enemy territory to do just that, and in Malouf’s book he does it in company with Somax, the peasant carter, and his mule Beauty – and the great king of Troy learns much about real life.  He learns the simple joy of dabbling his feet in a stream; and he tastes an everyday pancake and ponders, for the first time in his life, the process by which it is made.  More importantly, beyond these externalities, he learns to empathise and identify with a simple man, and he learns that those ‘ordinary desires and needs and feelings’ are what make a king also a man.

And Achilles?  Ah, you have to read Ransom yourself to see the magic that Malouf has wrought in bringing this brutal savage back into humanity’s fold. It gives one hope for the future that today’s savage brutes might in some way learn to do the same – that no one is beyond redemption.

It is astonishing to see how brilliantly in the 21st century this ancient story has been immortalised anew.  For those who read Ransom, Malouf’s imaginative rendering of this episode of The Iliad will forever be an unforgettable part of the original.  Don’t miss it.

RansomAuthor: David Malouf
Title: Ransom
Publisher: Knopf, (Random House) 2009 (First Edition)
ISBN: 9781741668377
Source: Personal Library, purchased at Readers Feast $29.95

Fishpond: Ransom


  1. […] Speaking of Australia, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has an enticing review of Ransom by David Malouf. […]

  2. I’m rather frightened of starting this book. I haven’t had a great experience with Malouf. I’ve read one or possibly two of his books in the past, and not really understood them. I’m expecting that to happen with Ransom too. I know absolutely nothing of Homer and The Iliad – well other than that it exists, so am feeling daunted by a modern reworking. I am planning on giving it a go, and indeed have already borrowed a copy from the library to give it a go. 50 pages to go on my current book and then Ransom is next off the blocks. Shall be interesting to see how it goes.

  3. This sounds really good. I haven’t read Malouf before however … is this a good place to start or can you recommend a better introduction?

  4. I am looking forward to reading this book – my signed copy no less :-) – coming up in the next few weeks. I read the first couple of pages before I attended Breakfast with Malouf at the NLA last year. the start enthralled me – his language and tone are so beautiful.

    Laura, I haven’t read this but it is probably a good one to start with. Otherwise, of the ones I’ve read (and I’ve read several) I usually recommend Fly Away Peter. It’s beautiful. Johnno, his first one and quite autobiographical is also a good place to start. But really it’s probably hard to go wrong.

  5. I second Fly Away Peter. Short, allusive, and it has all the Malouf virtues without the extremity of dreaminess that might throw a first-time reader off (or pull them in, you never know. But Peter seems a safer bet than the more meditative Imaginary Life, for example).

  6. Absolutely…I must admit I struggled a bit with An imaginary life but I think it was partly to do with where I was at at the time. Most of my bookgroup loved it…so I plan to give it another go one day. Anyhow, Peter certainly has the beauty while being pretty accessible at the same time.

  7. I’m so glad you enjoyed this Lisa, I’m looking forward to it once I’ve finished the Illiad.

    Re people trying Malouf for the first time, I’d also recommend his short stories eg the collections Dream Stuff and Every Move you Make. I read them first and was so impressed I got cracking on the novels.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for the Malouf recommendations!

  9. How lovely to see from these comments that Malouf is one of our most well-loved authors! Louise, I think I’d agree that Johnno or Fly Away Peter are easily accessible choices, but really, Ransom is a simple story at heart: it’s about a father who needs to get his child’s body back for burial, and his family and courtiers think that it’s dangerous and undignified for him to go begging to the man who killed him and is desecrating the body. I don’t think you’ll regret borrowing it:)

  10. The language of the book was so beautiful; it might almost have been a translation of some ancient classical language. The slow development of the bond between the king and the carter was wonderful.

    • I agree entirely BD…and I think that Priam’s awakening – no, their *mutual* awakening – each to the humanity of the other – is a wonderful coda to this ancient story.

  11. Thanks, BL:)
    The Aussie Author in Focus is a terrific initiative, highly recommended! I’ve added it to my blogroll.

  12. So there is, BL, I couldn’t see it for looking. I’ll amend the link…

  13. Thank you for your review. I have the Malouf book on my shelf and it is (almost) next up to be read. I tried The Iliad in my younger years and was turned off by the blood. Now I have come back to the Greeks, recently reading The Odyssey for the very first time, with great pleasure.

    Another book which takes you into The Iliad is Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles:

    • Thanks, I like the sound of that Caroline Alexander book, I’ve added it to my Wishlist at the Book Depository.
      Did you see that Ransom is on the IMPAC longlist?

  14. Back again to report that I have read the Malouf book and have posted my reactions: This is my first Malouf. I will look for more.

  15. I think Ransom is a masterful work. Stripped of royal rank & office, Priam tastes life for the first time. His relationship with Somax (owner of Beauty-indeed!) is eloquently portrayed. Achilles is reduced from warrior status & the encounter with Priam is a moving account of genuine emotional contact devoid of trappings & enmity. Knowledge of what is to ultimately transpire adds to the poignancy of the encounter. I highly recommend this novel. Don’t rush it-this is one to be savoured!

    • Hello Peter, thank you for visiting:)
      I think Ransom will always be my favourite of Malouf’s novels. To have transformed this brutal moment in Homer’s poem into a novel of such gentle humanity is a work of genius. Reading it and thinking about it makes me think that there may be hope for some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

  16. […] noting that it is unnecessary to know anything about the Iliad, Lisa Hill in her review at ANZ LitLovers writes that “for those who read Ransom, Malouf’s imaginative rendering of this episode of The […]

  17. Well, I followed your rec and read Ransom after finishing ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller and really enjoyed it, as I knew I would. Malouf is a master of so many things, compression, humanity, tension, change. Reading them together was great, too.

    • It is just so beautiful, isn’t it? I think it is my favourite of all Malouf’s books, it’s just perfect.

  18. […] Update: click here to see my review of Ransom by David Malouf. […]

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