Bright Air Black by David Vann - review by David R Henry

David R Henry

Medea on the Make

Bright Air Black

By

William Heinemann 252pp £18.99 order from our bookshop
 

So we come to yet another retelling of the life of Medea, the most famous child of Aeëtes of Colchis: priestess, traitor, herbalist, wife, and the Bronze Age’s most heralded murderer – as opposed to all the kings and heroes around her who were, of course, just doing their jobs as the corpses stacked neck-deep. This point is wonderfully and caustically made in David Vann’s newest version of the legend, Bright Air Black.

This is no translation but a reimagination, partly inspired by Vann’s own participation in a number of archaeological projects dealing with the Bronze Age (including sailing a reconstructed Argo-like ship). As Vann is quick to point out in his author’s note, this is a Bronze Age Medea stripped of all ‘centaurs and chariots rising into the air’ beyond those in the stories told by the characters themselves. But it’s also a feminist treatment of Medea, and Vann works very hard to try to get sympathetically into the head of a woman who decides to kill her own children.

That’s always been the trick with Medea, of course. Here she’s a fiercely intelligent woman who joins Jason both because of her attraction to him and because she sees him as a one-way boat ticket away from the stifling rule of her father. The Argonauts of Bright Air Black are

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