When archaeologist Lily disappears from the excavated remains of an ancient drowned city in southern Italy, we embark on a journey that will astonish us. Refusing to believe claims of friends and family, and police, that Lily has become another of those wives or husbands who simply decides one day to vanish, her husband Jonah, a musician, begins his own investigation, insisting that the disappearance from the dig of a small gold tablet must be related and even worrying that Lily’s archaeological friends, his own friends, too, may know more than they say. Jonah sets of on a journey across Italy and Greece, following the clues, archaeological and otherwise, to find his wife. He is on a quest but he’s not the first.
The Orpheus Descent is a novel that tells two stories. In parallel to Jonah and Lily’s story is that of Plato. In the years following Socrates’ murder or assassination, Plato’s writings underwent a significant change as his philosophical view of life, love, beauty and virtue shifted. Tom Harper here gives us one possible reason for this. Plato is also on a quest. He is hunting for his friend Agathon or, more particularly, a book that Agathon was prepared to pay an enormous amount of money for but, as far as Plato can tell, he disappeared in the act of buying it. Wars between Greek and Italian cities makes this a dangerous time to travel but Plato is determined to find his friend and his book. Accompanying him through shipwreck and capture is philosopher Euphemus, a Sophist with an entirely different interpretation of goodness to Plato. Both philosophies will be tested. But as the hunt continues, following the clues left by people he encounters as well as his own gold tablet, the possibility arises that Plato is also not the first to follow this path.
The two stories entwine like fibres of gold through The Orpheus Descent. As the novel progresses the strands knit closer but for much of the time they are linked by things wonderfully described and evoked – landscape, mythology, love, religion, desire, philosophy, jealousy, virtue. The Orpheus Descent is a superb reworking of some of the most familiar and beautiful myths of ancient Greece – Orpheus’ hunt for Eurydice in the Underworld among others. The landscapes of ancient and newer Greece and Italy, as well as the mythological landscape, are brought alive by the journeys of Jonah and Plato and the parallels between their two stories are awash with similarities and echoes.
Plato tells his story in the first person as if we are either reading his words or he is recounting them to us. Jonah’s story is in the third person. Hindsight tells us that Plato would survive his journey but there is nothing of the sort when it comes to Jonah. But what Plato’s survival and transformation tells us is that whatever he discovered must be truly miraculous and marvellous.
As befitting a novel inspired by ancient myth and philosophy, The Orpheus Descent has grand themes and elaborate plotting, connecting the two stories thousands of years apart in so many ways, but, just like Greek myths, it is also very simple and timeless. A man loves his wife, he loses her and he will find her.
The Orpheus Descent fascinates and entertains in lots of different ways. It is very successful as an adventure and thriller and, in the Plato half, also works well as a historical novel. But the two stories together, both of which I enjoyed equally, with all of the clever parallels and links with myths and quests, makes the novel utterly enchanting and brain testing in the best of ways. I think a basic knowledge of Greek mythology would enrich a reader’s enjoyment but it certainly isn’t necessary. This novel is genre-defying and the richer for it. I can’t recommend it enough.