Early in Joan London's Gilgamesh, Edith Clark finds herself in an age-old fix. After her cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram leave her broken-down Australian homestead following a long visit, the teenage girl discovers she is pregnant. What follows is an epic journey--or one that strives for epic resonance--to find the father in the Soviet Union amid the outset of World War II.
Gilgamesh is London's first work published in the United States, and it arrives with something of a reputation in tow. The novel was a finalist for a handful of Australian literary awards; London herself has won awards in the past for short-story collections, and apparently rightfully so. Her style is simultaneously understated and sumptuous; she illustrates with expert handling of the tiny details--enough to fill out the scene but not weigh down the text--yet London prefers to hint at big-picture events rather than describe them. She never says outright that Edith is pregnant, or even that Edith has had sex, but rather: "One night deep down in the drum of her belly she feels a beat, and she knows. She has known all along." In this, readers discover events as the characters discover them, and everything seems new. Wartime Europe, an all-too-familiar setting, comes alive in all of its anxiety, uncertainty, and horror.
But this penchant for understatement seems to prevent an emotional investment in the story. Edith seems to be a wallflower and a somewhat apathetic mother, personality traits that are less than compelling in a leading lady, especially in a feminized rewrite of the Gilgamesh myth. The peripheral characters--an Armenian textiles dealer and spy, an oil dealer, an aristocratic hotel manager, to name only a few--act on her behalf, and carry the story.
And the recurring theme of Gilgamesh is a bit of a mystery. In the epic myth, the king and his friend Enkidu travel adventurously until Enkidu dies. Then Gilgamesh travels alone, searching for the secret of eternal life, until he gives up and decides to settle down in his kingdom. One could assume that the king here is Edith, who after a long adventure finally decides to settle down in Australia. She leaves Australia for love, to find the father of her child, but London never sells us on Edith's convictions and, consequently, the novel. There might be pleasures in the journey, but one is not satisfied with the destination.