Bright Air Black is the best book I’ve read in a long time. David Vann has retold the story of Medea, one of the most controversial, powerful and compelling characters from classical Greek literature.
His Medea is not set in the time of Euripides’ play, but 800 years previously, more than 3,000 years ago, as the Bronze Age was about to enter the Axial. By the time Euripides told her story, she was a barbarian witch who relied on spells to weave her vengeful web. But Vann tells her story from her perspective, as an unusually intelligent woman capable of seeing through every king’s claims of divine descent.
From the opening scene, as she dismembers the brother she just murdered, tossing his body parts into the sea to confound her father. She has agreed almost spontaneously to throw her lot in with Jason and his Argonauts, which means murdering her kin and betraying her family. This is partly out of an intense love, but her true motive is freedom: her fate otherwise is to be sent off to some foreign prince in marriage, a gilded slavery. Her escape with Jason goes badly, rendering her chattel to a foreign king anyway – until Medea weaves her spell over the gullible, unthinking people around her.
The final pages of the book catch up with Euripides’ tale with Jason’s betrayal of her in Corinth, and Medea using her children as tools to exact her revenge. But whereas Euripides’s Medea knowingly sacrifices her sons, in Bright Air Black she only kills them because her gambit has gone awry and it’s her only means of agency left: better they die unafraid in her loving embrace than be speared by soldiers.
Vann writes with incredible power, painting the raw elements of sea, mountain and ancient towns, as well as to penetrate the soul of this willful woman, she who would do anything, anything, to rule as a queen without a king – the only alternative to slavery.
Bright Air Black is also a study in our ancient origins. Vann has spent a lot of time studying and thinking about this, and his representation through a novel brings this idea to life and makes it feel close. The people of Medea’s world have almost no sense of history or time, yet they share a powerful culture. Medea, almost uniquely, penetrates the lies and myths that the people perpetuate in order to impose some kind of order on their lives – they’d rather be slaves because none can image a society without a tyrant, Medea notes. The only character who ever matches her acuity is Pelias; in his cynical awfulness, he too sees through the lies, manipulating them to get what he wants, although he makes the mistake of letting her live.
Finally, Vann tells a tale about feminism, rescuing Medea from the thrall of Euripides. She is still monstrous but Vann wants to ask why. He convinces us that for a woman seeking to live her life freely, monstrosity is the only true path. But the men who rule and the men who serve are also monsters, too ready to indulge in murder, theft, orgies and plunder, all to maintain an unthinking order. It is her tragedy that they prove too stupid to understand how she makes fools of them all.