“The Flowers of Adonis” by Rosemary Sutcliff

One of my goals for 2018 is to maintain this book blog in a more regular fashion. Another of my goals is to stay on top of all the ARCs I’m meant to be reading. This review fulfills the former but not the latter, since the book I’m going to review today was published in 1969.

You might wonder why I’m reviewing it, but I think this is one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s more obscure novels, and it seemed worthwhile to try and bring it to more people’s attention. Also, I think if I stick to only reviews of ARCs, I’ll never manage to keep this blog consistent, because while I read a lot of them, I don’t have an infinite supply.

the flowers of adonis

So. The Flowers of Adonis is one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s adult novels, though she’s better known for her children’s books like The Eagle of the Ninth. This is worth bearing in mind, because the tone is quite different, although it still has many of her trademarks. It’s historical, like most (if not all?) of her other books, and focused on the Pelopennesian War and the character of Alkibiades, a Greek general.

I read this book in a somewhat disjointed way over several days, the bulk of it on a long train journey from Glasgow to London. As a result, my review might not be the most coherent…

First of all, I found this book quite hardgoing. I don’t think it was all that long in terms of page count, but it took me a fair while to read (I think my Kindle estimated more than three and a half hours), which is unusual for me. Partly, that was because it’s quite dense and detailed. There are a lot of politics, which I didn’t always follow, not least because everyone has complicated Greek names. I mean, I definitely know more about how Athens functioned than I did when I started, so I’ve learned something, but while the level of historical detail was admirable, it didn’t make it a particularly easy read. Despite the details, it was fast paced enough that if I skimmed I ended up missing things, which also slowed me down.

The shifts in POV also confused me, especially earlier in the book, where there were new ones on a fairly regular basis and it wasn’t always easy to tell who was who. It caught me by surprise: I read the first chapter and thought I knew what kind of story I’d be getting, but then the perspective shifted and I realised I’d been wrong. It grew on me as a stylistic choice, and it worked, overall, but it did make the book harder to get into. I also wasn’t very keen on the non-standard grammar Sutcliff used for “the Seaman” because it didn’t seem all that necessary and wasn’t always consistent enough to create a distinct voice, as I think it was intended to.

I didn’t notice until afterwards that you never actually get to see things from Alkibiades’s point of view: only those close to him. He’s an unpredictable character, and this had the effect of making his actions more enigmatic, so with hindsight, that was an effective choice — even if I didn’t realise it was happening at the time.

‘His moods swung between black silence and the kind of wild gaiety which is laughter flung in the face of the Gods. And the Gods do not tolerate impiety. I saw men step aside to avoid treading in his shadow.

However, those things aside, I did enjoy the book. I found myself getting surprisingly invested in characters who didn’t immediately interest me. Although I might have wished there were more women in the book who weren’t prostitutes or similar, I can’t deny that the complexity of their emotions struck me: the fine line between love and hate creating much more interesting passions than just devotion. They may have been slightly sidelined from the plot, but they weren’t sidelined from the feelings at all; there were several heart-wrenching moments near the end. These were also due to the writing quality — not all of Sutcliff’s stylistic choices were to my taste, but her use of symbolism and imagery, particularly with regard to the recurring religious rituals throughout the book, was undeniably effective and evocative.

I had hoped, because this book is by Rosemary Sutcliff, that it would be at least ambiguously gay (since all her books are, really), and it was, though not in the way I’d expected. I’d looked up Alkibiades before I started and assumed from the Wikipedia page that he’d be at least a little bit gay with Socrates, but the story actually starts some time after their association. (Not that there wasn’t any hint of homoeroticism about their relationship; it was outright discussed in an early chapter.)

‘Did you ever hear him tell the story of how he tried to seduce Socrates? I nearly laughed myself sick.’

There was actually a canonical m/m relationship, which isn’t something I’ve seen in Sutcliff’s children’s books but which I understand features in some of her other adult novels; it didn’t involve Alkibiades, who emphasises on several occasions — Socrates notwithstanding — that he’s into women.

While it didn’t take the form I expected, it was still nice to see some LGBTQ representation in an older book like this. (I have no idea of the statistics of books published in the 60s with queer characters, but I imagine it’s relatively rare.) Given the Classical setting, it would be narrow-minded to omit it, I suppose, but I liked and appreciated it, although I wished it could have been a larger part of the plot.

It had never happened to me before, and so I had never realised that falling in love could be so quiet and simple a thing.

Overall, I think my main response to this book is that it didn’t do what I expected. I kept thinking I knew where it was going: with the narrative structure, with the plot itself, with the various relationships involved. And I was rarely right. At times that was frustrating, I guess; I was expecting the things I most wanted to see. But it kept me reading, and the book ended with a gut-punch of emotions that had me tearing up. (On a train. Where I would’ve looked like a total weirdo if I randomly started crying.)

It wasn’t an easy read, and I found myself getting bogged down in some of the historical details, but I still enjoyed this quite a lot, and kept picking it back up again even though my reading was so disjointed that it wouldn’t have been hard to put it down and get distracted.

I’m not entirely sure how to rate it. I probably would have said three stars, because it was tough-going, but since finishing it this book has haunted me somewhat, especially the ending, so I’m going to bump it up to four.

Rating: ****

Buy ‘The Flowers of Adonis’ on Amazon (UK)
Buy ‘The Flowers of Adonis’ on Amazon (US)

One thought on ““The Flowers of Adonis” by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. Annis says:

    I’m a Sutliff fan from way back – I discovered her books as a kid in the 1950s and was hooked. In more recent times I revisited her body of work as the basis for an article I wrote about Rosemary Sutcliff for the Historical Novels Info website, and during this process read many of her novels previously not encountered, including the few written specifically for adults. I agree that “Flowers of Adonis” is a book which is initially daunting – like you I picked it up and then put it aside. However I had another go at it not long ago and persisted, finding it both rewarding and moving. Quite a task to take on Athenian general and politician Alkibiades, one of the most brilliant, charismatic yet opaquely enigmatic personalities in the history of Ancient Greece, loved and hated by equal degree. Who and what was Alkibiades? An overly entitled and self-absorbed narcissist, prepared to pull his world apart out of sheer pique? A misunderstood genius or the archetypal Trickster? I feel that Sutcliff made a good fist of it, largely because, as you’ve pointed out, Alkibiades is not tackled head-on, but seen from the multiple points of view of those who have interactions with him. In fact, as I came to understand that Sutcliff had obviously taken as her model the classical Greek tragedy as popularly performed in ancient Athens, complete with its chorus and flawed hero reaping the whirlwind of hubris, the reason why “Flowers of Adonis” ultimately works became clear. Sutcliff could not have chosen a more apposite way of interpreting Alkibiades’s story.


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