The famous collection of Sumerian poems from which Joan London’s novel takes its name describes the relationship of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu. Through their mutual devotion, they challenge the primitive forces that threaten them and their world, stabilize Uruk, and discover the poignant but cruel nature of mortality. Deprived of Enkidu by death, Gilgamesh searches the Underworld for the secret of immortality only to have its flower stolen while he sleeps.
London’s Gilgamesh encapsulates these universal themes in modern settings and exotic locals. It traces three generations of a heterogeneous extended family starting with the emigration from London to a poor farm in southwestern Australia of Frank Clark and his bride Ada immediately after World War I. Their daughter Edith, whose story fills the bulk of the novel, becomes entranced by the adventures of her visiting cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram. They are en route home from a tour of Mesopotamian archeological sites, and their experiences combine to make Leopold’s telling of the tales of Gilgamesh even more fascinating. Her attraction to Aram, a man whose background is so different from her own, is inevitable, and their sudden departure combined with the birth of Aram’s child impels Edith to follow.
This journey takes Edith and her son Jim first to 1939 London, the city from which her parents had emigrated, then across Europe to Soviet Armenia, Iraq, and ultimately back to Australia. She discovers what she had known intuitively: that death rules life, that life’s journey is gyred and that mortality governs its particulars. She seems hardly surprised when Jim appears ready to begin a heroic quest comparable to her own.