An Imaginary Life by David Malouf takes its setting from the exile of the Roman poet Ovid. He is banished to Tomis, a remote town on the outskirts of the empire where no one speaks his language. Ovid has been truly silenced by Augustus. The exile of Ovid is an event which is enshrined mystery. We know the name of the town that he was sent to, but we do not know why; some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the exile itself was a fiction. This lack of information gives Malouf the space to explore the story that he wants to tell.
We meet Ovid after his exile as he struggles to understand (quite literally) Tomis and the people with whom he now lives. Within this cold and desolate landscape, Malouf invents a character known only as the Child, a feral boy who has been raised in the wilderness by deer. Ovid feels an instant connection to this child and it is this relationship that creates the foundation of the book.
The unmistakable theme that is woven through this tale is that of civilisation and how it encroaches on the natural world. Humankind seeks to tame the wild places that it encounters and claim the world for ourselves, believing our way of life to be the correct way of life. These two forces clash together and the question of whether they can co-exist in peace is at the forefront of every page.
Transformation is also at the heart of this novel, which is unsurprising considering that the Metamorphoses is probably one of Ovid’s most well-known poems. Languages are taught and adapted, humans become like animals, new ways of living are learned, and illnesses take over. The end of the book leaves you with the sense that life itself is a transformation, with death being our final metamorphosis as we return to nature. Or perhaps I’m waxing lyrical a bit too much there.
The prose is indulgent and poetic, as I would expect from Malouf. For someone like me, who has an attention span of approximately 42 seconds, this requires a great deal of concentration, but it is wholly worth it:
Inside our room the air is thick with smoke from the peat that smolders under us. The windows are kept barred for the most part against the wind, and can be opened only on those strange still days of absolute frost when the sky turns icy blue and the whole world holds its breath and glitters blue, gold, white, as if we had suddenly stepped through into a new land.
I would not recommend this book to everyone, as there is little to no plot and we are kept at a distance from all the characters. But if you want an indulgent read with which to get involved, then this might just be for you.