cover image The Double Tongue: The Nobel Laureate's Stunning Final Novel

The Double Tongue: The Nobel Laureate's Stunning Final Novel

William Golding. Farrar Straus Giroux, $20 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-374-14329-9

Nobel Laureate Golding, who died in 1993, explores the disturbing relationships between the mystical, the sacred and the profane in ancient Greece in his 13th and final novel. Narrated by an octogenarian prophetess named Arieka, the book proceeds in rigidly linear form to recount her life from birth onward, employing a distinctly British voice that is mildly philosophical, occasionally graphic, often self-deprecating and generally rather arch. The young Arieka is ugly and dangerously naive, and she apparently possesses mysterious powers and a propensity for mischief that make her impossible to marry off. In late adolescence, she is ``adopted'' by Ionides, the High Priest at Delphi. Worldly and somewhat cynical, Ionides manages the renowned Delphic oracle like a lucrative tourist site, often fabricating prophecies to soothe the masses. Knowing that Arieka would make an ideal Pythia--the double-tongued Lady, voice of Apollo--he takes her under his care, educating her in a massive bookroom. That Arieka herself is never fully realized as a character is partly the result of her ``occupation''--she is, after all, a medium, the human mouthpiece for the prophetic god, and not much else--and in part because she has been left in draft form amid an essentially unfinished narrative. The novel's philosophical framework is in place: questions about faith and exploitation, slavery and freedom abound, as do musings on human societies and their all-too-human perversions. But the plot (and an underdeveloped subplot in which Ionides attempts to subvert Roman rule) feels rushed and inconclusive, and its characters, while articulate, remain curiously soulless. (Sept.)