The book “Glorious Exploits” by Ferdia Lennon is a comical retelling of amateur dramatics in ancient Sicily.
Ferdia Lennon’s charming first book, written by an Irish author, begins in Syracuse, a city in south-east Sicily, during the year 412BC. After successfully defeating an attack from Athens, the city has banished the surviving invaders to nearby quarries to suffer. The citizens of Syracuse show no sympathy towards the prisoners, until two locals propose a creative solution – to stage a play by Euripides featuring the captives.
The two men are Gelon, a melancholy theatre obsessive, and his wisecracking friend Lampo, who narrates the novel in a distinctly un-Sicilian voice. “Would you be knowing any passages?” he demands of a near-dead Athenian, seeking an actor to play Jason in Medea. Soon the pair are sneaking down daily to rehearse their ragtag troupe for a double bill to which the whole town is invited.
The idea may seem outlandish, but setting aside the Irish accents, the situation is not as implausible as it seems. Plutarch’s writings mention Athenian captives in Sicily exchanging lines from Euripides in exchange for sustenance or even their release. While the novel is hilariously entertaining – with Lampo being a particularly clever comedic character – Lennon, who holds a degree in classics, weaves humor and the darkest of tragedies together seamlessly.
The author exhibits impressive control in their writing. The protagonist’s eyes, filled with sorrow and a desire for revenge, are described as a “dark ocean during an eclipse”. In a somber moment, Gelon’s breath appears to create peculiar shapes in the air, resembling wilted grey flowers.
Lampo engages in terrible actions in an attempt to be of assistance. Desperate for funds to purchase costumes, he suggests robbing a disabled elderly man. Later, as he reflects on the strangers who sacrificed their lives to rescue him, he questions whether he would have done the same. Ultimately, he concludes that he would not have. However, his time working in the quarries and collaborating with adversaries to bring attention to human suffering through theater reveals selfless instincts he never knew existed.
Lennon stops well short of suggesting that stories have the power to heal the world, but – just sometimes – they can make a difference to individual lives. As Lampo puts it in a moment of fleeting optimism: “I’m pouring water in the desert, hoping flowers grow.”
Ferdia Lennon’s book, Glorious Exploits, is available for purchase at Fig Tree for £16.99. To show your support for the Guardian and Observer, you can order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.