One of the best new novels I’ve read so far this year has been The Amber Fury by Natalie Hayes (my review here).
I returned to the Oxford Literary Festival today to the confines of a lovely oak panelled room in Corpus Christi College to hear her in conversation with Peter Stothard. The room held maybe sixty people in total, so we were up close and personal from the off. Natalie and Stothard ambled in a few minutes late, apologising for their shambolic entry – they’d gone to the wrong venue! They apologised for not having really prepared in advance to talk about Natalie’s novel – but it didn’t matter a jot. Stothard (editor of the TLS), although prone to liking to hear his own views slightly too much, knows his classics OK, and Natalie as a classicist and former stand-up comedian can talk about anything, so it made for a great hour of chat.
The first of the Greek tragedies in the book that Alex uses to teach the PRU pupils is that of Oedipus. Natalie said, “If you’re going to win over teenagers, definitely start with illicit incestuous sex.” She explained (for structure nerds) how she structured the novel on Aristotleian principles – every scene should reveal character and advance the plot. Also the book is in five acts, like the plays of Sophocles. The over-riding theme is of freewill vs determinism – the essential Oedipal quandary.
However, we found out that Haynes’s own favourite Greek tragedy is that of Medea – the one who, spurned by Jason, killed all their children (according to Euripedes). It didn’t fit the book, however, the story of Alcestis which is essentially that of sacrifice did, and is also an essential part of the plot.
One other thing she said that stayed with me is, that you should read Catullus as a teenager, but Horace as a grown-up. I did Catullus for O-level – our translations were rather tame as I discovered a few years later when I bought a proper edition of his poems as a student; I did love them then. I’ve not looked at them for years – but then I’ve not read Horace – maybe his time is nigh.
Most of the audience appeared not to have read the novel! I really recommend it – and I can claim bragging rights too. Natalie signed my ARC at the end, and was impressed that I had the ARC – ‘I only got given one of those’ she said.
She was a great speaker, erudite and funny of course, but when she read the first page and a half of her novel, (which immediately gets you hooked with suspense) – she was seriously good at that too. The Amber Fury is a brilliant read, and you’ll definitely want to explore the Greek tragedies after reading it.