by Tom Harper
3 and a half stars
Two parallel stories: Jonah’s archaeologist wife is missing and so is a rare and valuable artefact. Did Lily steal it? Has she run away? Or has she been abducted by the rich and powerful sponsor of the dig? Meanwhile, back in 389 BC, Plato is travelling to Italy in search of a lost friend: it is a trip that will change his life forever.
It’s a nice idea, not quite as nicely done as I’d hoped it would be. It feels as if it’s constantly reaching for something bigger and better, but never quite gets there. As you’d expect in a book about Plato, there’s a lot of philosophising, but for all its classical quoting and borrowing, there’ s really not that much depth here.
The story is good – a little far fetched at times (and that dream sequence goes on way, way too long!), but there’s nothing wrong with that. There are reminders of The Secret History: the Bacchanal, the close-knit group of friends – cold academics, locked in their own small world, a world mostly closed to strangers, like guitarist Jonah – but it’s not in the same league as Donna Tartt’s masterpiece. The modern-day characters are not as well-wrought as they could be (the classical characters are much better) but they serve well enough to drive the plot. I did care what happened to them, but I enjoyed Plato’s story much more than Jonah’s. Jonah came across as rather thick; he got a bit annoying at times.
I’m in two minds about this book. Like the Greek tragedies it apes, The Orpheus Descent wears a mask: it feels like it wants, desperately, to be profound – and sometimes it almost is, but the tone is always closer to Dan Brown than David Mitchell. It’s an intriguing and involving story; a terrific good and meaty holiday read – especially if you’re travelling to Greece or Sicily. Nice and long and thoroughly entertaining, if you don’t want to have to think too hard.