An acclaimed poet, Tobias Hill displays a startling ability to evoke a world as freshly as though he’s just stepped out of it. In this case, it’s contemporary Greece – or to be more precise, a small corner of what used to be Sparta, and the scene of an archaeological excavation. Enter Ben Mercer, an unwelcome latecomer, half-drowned by a winter rainstorm. Ben has fled to Greece in the wake of a failed marriage and a stalled academic career back in Oxford. A chance encounter in Athens with fellow archaeology student Eberhard Sauer alerts Ben to the dig, and the mere mention of Sparta reawakens his lifelong fascination with its ancient legends. Despite Sauer’s hostile evasions, he applies to join the archaeological team.
Hill is such a perceptive writer that he gets deep inside Ben’s head and makes us experience events through the directionless young man’s eyes. Remarkable, too, is his portrayal of the ragbag of individuals Ben encounters at the site. Ben, with his psychological need ‘to be with someone;