Review: The Charioteer by Mary Renault

It’s hard for me to do a review of this book for many reasons.  It seems a bit cheeky for me to even try – and it’s  been around for so long I would imagine that just about everyone I know has read it, but if this review tempts one person who hasn’t to give it a whirl, then I’ll have achieved something. So perhaps it’s less of a review and more of a personal rave. That I love it, is a given.

It’s a simple enough story on the surface. Laurie, young idealistic, attempts to defend Ralph, the head boy at his school, when he is about to be sent down for “misbehaving with a younger boy.”  Ralph finds out before Laurie can act and warns him off. During the discussion Ralph gives Laurie a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus which he keeps with him and uses as a model for his life. Time moves on – World War 2 happens and we next catch up with Laurie in hospital where he’s developing a heavy crush on a concientious objector, Andrew – and then he meets Ralph again.

The Charioteer is the thread and metaphor which runs throughout the book. The Charioteer of Phaedrus handles two horses, one runs smoothly and obediently, the other fights against the control – it is up to the charioteer to make them run as a pair.  The parallels for the charioteer are myriad – the comparison between “normal” sexual behaviour and the homosexual – the love that Laurie feels for Andrew and the relationship he eventually forms with Ralph to name just two.

I’m sure there are tons of themes that the more intellectual have found/discussed to the skies, but the best thing for me is that it’s a lesson in how to write – without actually writing.  The book is sparse to the extreme, it’s like she wrote a much longer book and then cut huge hunks out of the middles of each scene. Conversations are handled in real time, characters don’t finish sentences, and there are utterly intriguing gaps where the reader “loses time” – where something may have happened, a look, a kiss or a sex scene.  It’s amazingly skilful and all I could do was smash my keyboard to pieces in frustration that I’ll never come close to that.

The characters are indelibly imprinted on my mind, all except  perhaps Andrew, which is probably deliberate because we see him only through Laurie’s eyes and Laurie isn’t objective. I found him too remote to be interesting, whereas the characters that Laurie meets at the queer party he attends are stronger – and my heart broke over the young airman who comes over brash and unbearable until you think about what he’s doing, for his job. Ralph is irresistable – as Laurie finds him to be, and I really felt the attraction, he’s quite my favourite character – but all of them are amazingly well done, complex, contrary, stupid and real.

One of the best books I’ve ever read – regardless of theme – and one of the Essential Reads for anyone interested in the genre, in my opinion.

Buy it

10 Responses

  1. I sooooo loved this book – as you know! Lovely to see it on here




  2. This is absolutely the best gay fiction ever written, in my opinion. An absolutely realistic, bleak, unromantic, very atmospheric look at gay men during WW II. And the language is superb. I recently re-read this book after nearly 20 years, and was astonished to find how well it had endured, and how completely I got immersed in it even though I knew the story practically by heart having read it so many times in my closeted teens. Now in my forties, having seen my share of the gay world, all I can say is there are very few other books that capture gay men as realistically as this book does – and without a single explicit sex scene or even a full blooded description of the what the heros look like.

    If you like this book, see if you can also get hold of “wingmen” by ensan case. Its equally worth hunting for.

    • It is amazing, and it really stands the test of time.

      I’ve been trying to get hold of a reasonably priced copy of Wingmen for a while – my library can’t help!!


  3. I loved The Charioteer as well. I understand what you’re saying about Andrew, though I was somehow rooting for that romance to work out (partly because I’m a Quaker, I suppose!). I like Ralph too, though.

  4. I do want to point out that you do not by any means have to be gay to love this novel. (Well, I’m sure many realise that but in case some don’t)

    It is frankly one of the best love stories ever written and anyone who can’t feel for the amazingly delineated characters needs some kind of heart transplant. And yet in a way there is very little “romantic” in it as people think of the term.

  5. “The book is sparse to the extreme, it’s like she wrote a much longer book and then cut huge hunks out of the middles of each scene.”

    Perspicacious. In fact, the original 1953 Longmans edition is 50 pages longer than the 1959 Pantheon edition, which is the version you find in paperback editions. Most of the cuts were made to the first half of the story, many of them to scenes developing Andrew’s character and Laurie’s relationship with him, which probably explains why you (and many others) find him “too remote to be interesting”. I suggest you try to get a second-hand copy of the orginal version. It’s a revelation.

  6. I think this is a fine piece of writing with a realistic depiction of gay men in the wartime perod when there was much hostility towards gay men and when gay men lived hidden lives or indeed double lives. The main characters are well formed and developed.I was not aware the popular edition had been so heavily edited and that the character of Anderw had undergone quite a revision. The thing is with this book is that it stands the test of time. I enjoyed immensely and look forward to reading it again.

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