Whereas Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey retells several episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, David Malouf’s Ransom takes one specific episode from The Iliad and renders it anew. When Achilles savagely slays Hector, the killer of his beloved Patroclus, in his grief he desecrates the body of Hector, and refuses to give it back to the Trojan people for proper burial. Buy you knew this already from Homer’s Iliad.
It’s the relationships between men that concerns Malouf here: the relationship between King Priam and Achilles, of course. But also the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, between Achilles and his son Neoptolemus, the relationship between King Priam and his many sons, the relationship between Priam and Somax (a wholly invented character), his carter (cart driver) and companion on the road to ransom the body of his son.
What Malouf does here really, is scale down Homer’s epic tale of never-ending war to its most basic human element: a story of grief and loss. It’s a slim book, with a modest goal, crafted well. To his credit, Malouf unveils a Priam that you may have never had a sense of until now. Still, it’s Achilles who remains the most compelling character from Homer’s pantheon. Should you happen to be a Homer-phile, you’ll certainly wish to read this fresh look at the ransom of Hector’s body. And if not, then perhaps something else more suited will catch your eye on the bookstore or library shelves.