Reviewed by David Maclaine
The love-artist in Jane Alison's novel is the great poet Publius Ovidius Naso, or as most readers for the past two millennia have known him, Ovid. Alison proves that she too is an artist with the literary gifts needed to shine a rich light on some of the darker corners of obsessive love. Her tale begins with a view of Ovid's hurried departure from Rome after he finds himself abruptly banished by the emperor Augustus. The main action then unfolds in flashback, and we follow the poet on a journey to the far end of the Black Sea, in the lands where Jason once sailed in quest of the Golden Fleece. There he meets and becomes entranced by a remarkable young woman adept in the forms of healing and insight people of the time view as sorcery. She travels with him back to Rome and becomes his muse, pulling him toward a more serious subject than his usual tales of love intrigues and divine shape-shifting. Their relationship is anything but straightforward, and it becomes an open question who is exploiting whom. The dance becomes more complex and perilous when a third party joins in, a patron from the imperial family who offers Ovid the hope of security and advancement. But a poet riding the emotions needed to write a new play about Medea has reason to be skeptical about a happy ending.
The deep impact of The Love Artist comes from Alison's masterful portrayal of the inner workings of complex personalities and her understanding of the forces that drive a writer to dream of immortality. Though Ovid's muse from the Black Sea shore has the gift for seeing futures the poet wants to know, she sees but will not tell the truth of the long survival of his work. This brilliant look into the artist's soul had an effect on me that Alison would approve; I was drawn once again to plunge into Ovid's poetry. (2001, 256 pages)More about The Love-Artist at Powell's Books or Amazon.com