This is a magnificent book, a story of encounters and escapes, of friendship and love, of loss and acceptance. It is full of sparely depicted but fully fleshed characters and the wide sweep of history.
It is 1937. On a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, a beautiful woman who lives mostly in her own mind after the sudden death of Frances and Edith’s father. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive-taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the hardscrabble farm life of her village. When they leave, Leopold to return to London and Aram to Armenia, the house feels suddenly empty and Edith misses them fervently.
Two years later, in 1939, Edith sets out on a journey of her own, bringing with her the young son she and Aram conceived, whom he does not know about. Motherhood has clarified Edith-she has become single-minded, unwilling to swerve from her path, no matter what social mores or practical limitations are put in her way. When she is sent to a birthing house to bear Jim, and believes they plan to adopt him out against her will, she sneaks out at dawn and takes him home. She raises him alone, under her sister’s disapproving eye and despite the patronizing of Madge Tehoe, her employer at the Sea House hotel. When Madge’s brother-in-law Ronnie comes to visit, he tells Edith how easy he has found it to make a life traveling around the world. She finds out how much she’d need to get started, and begins hoarding tips and quietly stealing small sums and useful objects from guests and the hotel.
Edith believes that if she can get to Armenia, she and Aram will find each other. She catches a ship to London, where she gets to know Irina, Leopold’s mother. Leopold himself is off at another dig. Irina tries to dissuade her from going to Armenia, but soon Edith boards the Orient Express in Paris for Armenia. On board, she and Jim are curiosities-a single woman and a toddler, traveling alone. A wealthy old man known only, famously, as Mr. Five Percent (for the five percent share he has in various aspects of Armenia’s international trade), attempts to seduce her in his compartment, but she escapes and is befriended by Hagop, a textile trader who was made partially lame when his music school was bombed in a dispute between Armenian nationalists and the secret police. Hagop elects himself as Edith’s traveling companion, negotiating her into Armenia despite her lack of a visa, and finding her transport and a place to stay in Yerevan, the capital. She moves into the apartment of a famous Armenian poet, an old blind woman known only as Tati, and becomes her caretaker. Hagop and his wife Nevart, a beautiful, caustic pianist embittered by the ending of her career and being put in a wheelchair by the same explosion in which Hagop was injured. Edith remains in Yerevan, enrolling Jim in school, working herself hard caring for Nevart and Tati, enjoying Hagop’s companionship, and once sleeping with a nightclub owner named Manouk. Her responsibilities are eased when Nevart begins singing and playing piano at a hotel nightclub for an audience of Russian soldiers, and eventually moves into the hotel full-time. But in January 1943, things start to become more dangerous-Germany and Russia are locked in combat, and Yerevan is increasingly tense with informers and surveillance.
In the first months of 1944 Nevart kills herself, and simultaneously Hagop informs Edith and Jim they must leave, that they are no longer protected from the secret police. He picks them up on the street the afternoon of Nevart’s funeral (they did not attend for fear of informers), and puts them in a car with Manouk’s cousin, who drives them to the border. On the other side is Leopold. He takes them across Iraq to Syria, elaborating on the Gilgamesh story he had told Edith so many years before, and near Aleppo he installs them in the same orphanage Aram was taken to after his family was killed in the Turkish genocide. As Leopold’s Jeep leaves the orphanage, there is an explosion, and Edith and Jim receive word that a British Jeep was blown up by a mine. Edith writes to Irina and receives no answer. They wait there, grieving and listening to news of D-Day and the Russian Front, until finally in April 1945, a year after their arrival in Aleppo, Edith and Jim catch a ride with an Australian transport of soldiers and begin the long journey home. They arrive a year and a half later.
Much has changed in Edith’s years of travel. Her “sin” is no longer so glaring now that she has lived beyond iiiiiit, except in the eyes of Frances, who is flirting with fundamentalism. Jim, however, has an impossible time adjusting to what his mother calls “home.” His schoolmates call him a bastard and stare at his dark skin and hair, and Sir, his teacher, is an alcoholic autocrat who implies Jim is from “barbarous climes.” Frances fixes on him and is convinced Edith is being too soft, as Jim misses more and more school and becomes depressed. When Sir arrives to enroll Jim in a school for intractable boys in Perth, Edith is at work and Frances signs him over. Edith leaves to collect him as soon as she learns about it, enrolling him in a correspondence school at which he excels.
Jim grows up. Edith meets a man at the nursing home where she works, and his companionship proves a balm to Jim’s loneliness and restless frustration. Frances meets a young widow named Lee, whose husband has left her alone on their farm, and the two begin working Lee’s land together, and soon Frances is living there and they have become romantic partners as well. Ultimately, as Jim graduates from his school and must decide what to do next, he is waiting for some sort of sign as to what his destiny will be-something along the lines of the impetus that caused Edith to leave Australia, or the face of his father, Aram, he imagined in the foliage at the boarding school before Edith arrived to rescue him. Returning home from the failed attempt to visit Frances (who of course thinks manual labor on her and Lee’s farm is the answer to Jim’s malaise, by which Jim is infuriated), a letter from abroad is waiting on the table that will unlock Jim’s future and the possibility that he will become a writer.
A stunning novel which Good Reading called “a small masterpiece,” Gilgamesh examines what happens when we strike out into the world, and how, like the wandering king, we find our way home.