He­len of Troy tale re­told in mod­ern times

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gor­don Arnold

CAN a clas­sic love story thou­sands of years old sur­vive on the bat­tle­fields of the 21st century? It can, and does, in the hands of au­thor Jonathan Ben­nett — al­though the plot line gets a lit­tle man­gled along the way. In The Colo­nial Ho­tel, Ben­nett’s reimag­in­ing of the clas­sic Greek story of He­len of Troy, he re­casts He­len as a nurse and Paris as a doc­tor, work­ing on the front lines of emer­gency medicine in the Third World, Oenone, mean­while, ap­pears as a vil­lage leader and na­tive healer. This love story is also a story about the hor­ror of war. As Oenone sees it, “There is no in­no­cent, no guilty, no law, only in­di­vid­ual men who have had their sto­ries taken, and so are no longer men at all.” Ben­nett has writ­ten six books, in­clud­ing the crit­i­cally ac­claimed En­ti­tle­ment and Af­ter Bat­tersea Park. The au­thor was born in Van­cou­ver, raised in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, and now lives near Peter­bor­ough, Ont. The novel be­gins in the Colo­nial Ho­tel, where for­eign aid work­ers stay. Paris and He­len are in a coun­try on the brink of civil war. When rebel forces in­vade the town, they are sep­a­rated. Oenone helps He­len and other women es­cape, but Paris is taken cap­tive. The story un­folds through letters and songs to their chil­dren. He­len and Paris first met in an op­er­at­ing theatre in a cri­sis zone. Paris was smit­ten by her beauty. “As a nurse, He­len took the dan­ger­ous as­sign­ments se­ri­ously and will­ingly... As a physi­cian, my skills and knowl­edge were in de­mand — but in truth I had lit­tle driv­ing me other than the de­sire to fol­low He­len.” Ben­nett uses the letters to pick away at gut-wrench­ing emo­tions and painful fam­ily mem­o­ries. He­len’s letters, for ex­am­ple, re­veal a poor self-im­age. She sees her­self as “stolen land, erased lan­guage, an echo of rapes long ago.” High-risk nurs­ing is a nar­cotic for He­len, taken to keep her emo­tional pain at bay. It is a means to “avoid hav­ing love for oth­ers.” To push the pain fur­ther away, she also acts as a spy. “I am used as a means to an end. I loathe this about my­self.” Al­though he knows of her spy­ing, Paris never asks the ques­tion “Were there two He­lens?” He spends many years in prison pars­ing ev­ery as­pect of their re­la­tion­ship. He­len, mean­while, sees Paris as “God at work. The good­ness and cer­tainty of a good man ded­i­cated to the lambs.” She does not love Paris, but “I al­lowed Paris to be­come my lover be­cause I wanted you (her un­born daugh­ter).” His weak­ness is that “He’s never been in love be­fore now. Once hurt, a per­son pro­tects him­self. Paris guards noth­ing.” Oenone emerges as a foun­tain of strength for both Paris and He­len. “She car­ries with her a bur­den she does not ques­tion, but rather ac­cepts and uses,” He­len says. Af­ter years of cap­tiv­ity, Paris loses the will to live. He is close to death from star­va­tion when he is res­cued and nursed back to health by Oenone. “I be­lieved... that she needed me too and that by sav­ing my life in the man­ner she had, she was bound to me.” Ben­nett has pre­sented a com­pelling, lyri­cal novel of love, suf­fer­ing and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, ev­ery­one’s story held se­cure in Oenone’s meta­phys­i­cal world view. “My child is my hus­band, they are both my par­ents. My son is Paris. You are me.”

Gor­don Arnold is a Win­nipeg writer.

The Colo­nial Ho­tel

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