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.