Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Review: Inanna by Emily H. Wilson

An interesting take on a Mesopotamian myth, but one that brings its own downsides along with its innovations.

One of my favourite fun facts (because I am a hit at parties) is that the earliest recorded text for which we have a named author was written by a woman. Her name was Enheduanna, and she wrote several hymns to Inanna, and to other of the Sumerian gods, back in the 23rd century BCE. The myth of Inanna - a... complex goddess of both love and war - alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh, is thus one of our oldest attested mythological narratives, rich in variations as all stories are when they've been around long enough. In a literary environment full of feminist retellings of goddesses and mortal women girlbossing it up, it feels somewhat surprising that we haven't yet had a heavily marketed attempt at this story of a goddess who seemingly gets to have it all (so long as you define "all" is as being the ability to wield both violence and sensuality). But we haven't, and so Emily H. Wilson's upcoming debut novel gets to attack the problem from a relatively clean slate.

Somewhat belying the title, the novel is actually a retelling of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Inanna's descent to the underworld (is it spoilers if it's 44 centuries old? I feel like that may be past the statute of limitations on spoilers), linking the two via Inanna's interaction with Gilgamesh in his own story, but mostly holding them apart as two concurrent but mostly unconnected tales. They both take place in a historically authentic Mesopotamian setting, rich in details of how life is lived by people both within and without the structures of power. However, this is a setting where the gods live very literally among their people, in palaces and temples, exercising temporal power alongside their more numinous abilities. We see Inanna grow up here, the only child of the gods born after their fall from the heavens, learning what it is to be an immortal among the mortal, forever set apart by her blood and birth. Meanwhile, we watch Gilgamesh, born likewise in the mortal world to gods but without their immortality, reckoning with his own fragility in comparison to those he loves, and who love him, and how this affects his character and behaviour.

We also follow Ninshubar, born outside of the sphere of Sumerian society but drawn into it by forces beyond her control, and forced to learn how to deal with its power and its cruelties, before she finds herself allied with Inanna and her people. An interesting person, drawn from a much more minor mythological figure, she presents the outsider's perspective to everything, as well as just someone with a unique view of the world and how one interacts with it, as something of a balm in the face of the other two stories, as well as, sometimes, a strange sort of comic relief. She's such a fun person to inhabit the thoughts of, I always found myself glad when I got to one of her chapters, because the way she speaks, and thinks, was so specific to her and unlike most other characters I've read before.

In some ways, this is a heavily character driven story - it cares a lot with young Inanna's reckoning of watching those around her die, as well as Gilgamesh's various interpersonal relationships, and particularly that with Enkidu. It wants to humanise their emotional inner lives, and have us relate to them as people, first and foremost, even as they behave as gods and heroes.

However... there's a catch. And it's by far the most interesting choice Wilson has made in the novel.

From the moment we start, the prose, constantly, at both a sentence level and a broader structural level, has a ghost of reminiscence of the original Sumerian way of telling stories about it. It's not a full on pastiche, by any means, and it doesn't read like a bad translation at any point, but if you've ever engaged with one of those stories directly, whether in translation or original, you will begin to feel the kinship between the way they speak, and how Wilson has organised her prose.

One of the ways she does this is the use of repetition. On a sentence by sentence level, it looks something like this:

Take away water from a man, and he wilts. But you have given me water and I thank you for that water.

As an English sentence, devoid of context and relation to any other text, this reads as... somewhat artless. The repetition is strange, and very much unnatural to the usual way our literature is written. But, in the context of Mesopotamian myth*, this is very very normal. Some of the texts we have that these stories come to us from are also hymns, rather than simple narratives, and we find this repetition especially common in those contexts. Wilson here is evoking very strongly the sort of phraseology you would see if you picked up a translation of Enheduanna's work, for instance.

But it's not just on the small scale. There's one phrase that Ninshubar uses in her first chapter - one step and then the next - that crops up from time to time in her own later ones, her way of approaching the seemingly insurmountable problems she faces. But as the story progresses, we find it repeated not just in her perspective but in the perspective of Inanna, who now travels with her, and even in that of Gilgamesh. It stops being a set phrase, repeated word for word, but becomes a sort of ideal that permeates how they all approach the problems of the later half of the book, and so this simple sentence sets off echoes that reverberate and change across the whole length of the story.

We also frequently see repeated motifs, like the following that comes in a Gilgamesh chapter when he meets strangers in the desert and is offered tea:

I drank it down, but at once he poured me another cup. Only when I had forced down three cups did Uptu hunt around for other cups, and hand them around to the other men. Finally, he sat down cross-legged in front of me, with his own tea, and sipped at it. Since he said nothing, I said nothing.

And then a few paragraphs later:

Uptu nodded at me, and then handed me a small plate.
"Thank you," I said. I heaped my plate high.

<gap of a few lines>

I ate a second plate, and then a third one.
After that, the other men came forwards to shovel meat and breads onto their own plates.

This type of repetition and formulaic, almost ritualistic expression, even of a relatively minor event, is incredibly common in Mesopotamian myth, and to see it here very strongly evokes them, to anyone familiar. And that particular type of repetition - and how it feels ritualistic - lends an air of the mythic to the story, even in those moments when we feel that its subject has become as mundane as drinking tea and eating meat. The prose feels constantly considered and laden with meaning.

And I love this, I love how there's such a persistent thread of commonality with the source texts running through it, meaning you can never forget where this story comes from. Wilson has done an impeccable job making it palpable and present, but without ever letting it become overbearing - you never stop feeling like you're still reading a modern novel... it's just one that evokes something much older. I think it took a great deal of skill to manage, and it's something I think we see less in retellings, even ones that do a lot to heavily set their story in an authentic historical place.

However, and to loop back to where this all started, this approach has a downside. Where repetition can feel ritualistic, ponderous, laden with weight and meaning, giving the whole text the air of the numinous and potent... it also very much undercuts the more intimate, human moments, precisely because it conveys their opposite. For Inanna in the underworld, numinous is amazing. For Gilgamesh's newly budding feelings for a travelling companion, for his grief at the death of a beloved, it robs us of our intimacy and our sympathy. By elevating the events of the story above the mortal plane, Wilson unfortunately loses some of the grasp on those same events' humanity, and this is a terrible shame. There are some incredibly potent moments across the story that even through the prose were heartfelt, but because they felt stilted and formal, never quite reached the level of sob-inducing and gut-wrenching they might have done in a story told differently.

On balance, I think this is a price worth paying. If I want my heart ripped out by touching moments of intimate emotion, there are other authors and can go to, other stories I can find. There are very few that do what Wilson has chosen here with her prose, and I think that should be treasured. But I have to admit, I wish she could magically have done both, even as I don't see how - I think if you applied the prose techniques more inconsistently, it would ruin the atmosphere she's so painstakingly created, and so succeed at neither part at all.

On a more structural level, she also harks back to Mesopotamian myth narratives in the way her story is arranged - especially toward the end it begins to feel rather like one event and then the next, rather than a cohesive plot with coherent underpinnings. But again, I find I don't mind it. Does it feel like a modern novel? Mostly, but not entirely. Does it once again evoke the feeling of reading an ancient myth? Absolutely. Gilgamesh's story particularly is full of twists and turns of things just sort of... happening... and him going along with them, and there's a shadow of something very similar haunting all of his chapters, and everyone's chapters in the last quarter of the story.

But the joy isn't purely in the story's authenticity. In little hints that I hope point to much more significant developments in the sequels (because this is the first in a trilogy), Wilson starts to suggest that maybe the power and backstory of the gods isn't quite as... magical or mythological... as we might assume. It's never made explicit, but the hints build and build until a point where you cannot quite ignore them, and you start to wonder if maybe this one needs to be shelved as SF rather than F. Again, in the landscape of myth retellings, this is a nice twist to set this one apart from the many others, and one I really want to read the sequels for, simply to find out where it leads. To have something like that, a surprise and a mystery, in a story 44 centuries old, is incredibly refreshing.

You will note that at no point since my opening paragraph have I talked about this in the context of a feminist retelling... because it's not one. It's not anti-feminist. It just has other themes and threads its interested in, and in a literary context where girl-boss Inanna feels depressingly plausible, I am incredibly glad to see she has not materialised here. Is she powerful? Yes, undoubtedly. But her power and her focus is unconnected to her gender (though she is deeply aware of how her gender influences her situation), and so it just never becomes the point... which again, is refreshing. It is a gender-aware story, without needing to hit the reader over the head with its points.

On the whole, that level of subtlety and care is exactly what exemplifies all the good parts of the story. It's an incredibly thoughtful retelling, and one that sets itself apart by how it ties itself close and pushes itself away from the myths it exists in conversation with. You have no doubt that the author is deeply familiar with them, but also wants to make her own story, not just put us through the same events in a different voice. It does let itself down in how it portrays the emotional lives of its characters, and I do feel like there was something of an opportunity miss in the way Gilgamesh and Enkidu was rushed a little through, but on the whole, this feels like a price worth paying for a story choosing to do something unusual in both ideas and form.

*I say Mesopotamian here rather than specifically Sumerian because a lot of the storytelling traditions and forms did translate across the different civilisations there. What is true of Sumerian can also be seen in some Akkadian or Hittite texts, for example, and the stories told in one sometimes made their way across to the others.


The Math

Highlights: prose incredibly evocative of the myths from which the story draws, very clear descriptions of place, interesting hint of deviation from the story you expect

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Emily H. Wilson, Inanna, [Titan, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea