Bright Air Black

Written by David Vann
Review by India Edghill

The familiar Greek myth of Jason and Medea is retold in Bright Air Black. In brilliant, evocative prose, the world of the Bronze Age becomes grittily real. Jason’s uncle Pelias seized the kingdom from Jason’s father and killed all the royal heirs but Jason, who was hidden by his mother. Now a man, Jason comes to reclaim his throne. If he brings back the fabulous Golden Fleece, Pelias promises to surrender the throne to Jason (who believes this, which tells you all you need to know about Jason). The Golden Fleece is in Colchis, at the far eastern end of the Black Sea, and there Jason finds Medea, who falls in love with him and commits treason, fratricide, and murder to aid his cause.

The novel is told from Medea’s point of view, and her fury and despair at Jason’s inevitable betrayal are vivid and believable. Beginning with Medea’s murder of her brother and the scattering of pieces of his body behind Jason’s ship to slow down her father’s pursuit, we follow her journey as King Pelias enslaves them both, and Medea uses her arcane skills to trick Pelias’s daughters into killing him. Pelias’s son drives Jason and Medea into exile, and they go to Corinth, where Jason is lauded and Medea despised. Despite all Medea does for Jason, and the two sons she has born to him, he now sees her as a dangerous burden. And when he repudiates her and marries the princess of Corinth, Medea’s story heads for its inexorable tragic ending.

While the novel doesn’t give any really new angle on the story of Medea, it grounds the story firmly in archaic Greece; the detail work is fascinating and the language dazzling. Like Miranda Seymour’s Medea (1982), Bright Air Black is vivid and memorable.