Oyster Boy Review 13  
  Summer 2001
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'The Love-Artist' by Jane Alison

Larry Johnson

If, like me, you've always wanted to write a novel about Ovid in exile and were not quite satisfied with David Malouf's wonderfully written but rather bleak version in An Imaginary Life, then The Love-Artist may be for you. True, it's not about Ovid's exile but the events leading up to it, but those are things we've always wanted to know as well, and Jane Alison's first novel portrays a set of unlikely but delicious circumstances that one at times wishes were true. Better that Ovid should be exiled for these events (which do turn out to involve "a poem and an error") than for Augustus' mere hypocritical displeasure with The Art of Love.

The novel opens with Ovid's arrest and departure toward exile and the remainder is flashback until the epilogue. Having finished his great work Metamorphoses, Rome's most famous and fashionable poet decides to get out of the City for awhile and let the poem's effect settle on critics and emperor alike. He chooses to holiday in a rather unlikely but exciting place: the east coast of the Black Sea, not far from the fabulous land of Colchis, home of the witch Medea. Even the backward natives here have heard of his fame, especially a beautiful young herbalist and spellcaster, Xenia. The two meet amid luscious natural beauty and Xenia, whose one wish is the same as Ovid's—"To be known. To be remembered. To live forever"—makes the poet her lover and decides to become his Muse through devotion, sex, and magic. Thus she will become immortal along with him.

Feeling this beneficent power, Ovid returns to Rome with her and starts to write a new poem while the Metamorphoses begins to be accepted as a masterpiece by everyone but the "marble man" Augustus. Seeking to influence his aloof sovereign, Ovid finds a new secret patron, the emperor's granddaughter Julia, shortly to be exiled, like her mother, for immorality. As Xenia becomes pregnant with what she prophecies will be twins, Ovid's new poem, under Julia's patronage, is seen to be his lost play Medea, with Ovid, Xenia, and her unborn children playing the central roles. Xenia has thus become the obsessed poet's masterpiece, but he is hers as well, each bargaining for eternal life, so what of the play's climax? Will Ovid be able to write the scene where Medea murders her brood if Xenia doesn't commit the same act? And what will happen when the jealous witch-girl discovers the identity of her lover's mysterious patron?

All these questions are answered in the novel's climax and epilogue and, as in the rest of the book, through beautiful, moving language and the requisite scenes of "transformation," rife with thrilling sense imagery.

Ovid is finally, of course, exiled to the dreary town of Tomis, on the west coast of the Black Sea, in a much less hospitable climate. And the fate of Xenia and her children? One must read the novel for this revelation, and afterward he or she will truly, along with the distraught Jason, "testify . . . that there are no gods."