Ben Mercer is running away! More specifically, he’s going to Greece to recover from a painful divorce. We join in him in Athens, looking for some kind of work. He eventually finds some backbreaking work in a Greek meat grill in a town called Metamorphosis. He stays here, absorbed in his tiredness until he unexpectedly bumps into an old acquaintance from Oxford, who reluctantly let slip he was going to work on a dig at ancient Sparta. Ben finds himself there, and discovers all is not as it seems.
Ok, that’s quite a short synopsis for such a long book. The book is written as both a third person narrative about Ben’s time in Greece, interspersed with Ben’s notes on Sparta, which are intended to be turned into some kind of thesis, hence the title, Notes on a Thesis. The historical information contained in the Notes sections is interesting, and necessary to the plot of the book.
The ideas about Spartans and archaeology run throughout the novel, as do Ben’s internal battlings with himself about his relationship with Emine, his wife and Nessie, his daughter. Things in this novel are hidden from the start. As well as the history of Sparta being gradually revealed, Ben’s violence towards his wife is hinted at, but not revealed until later on in the novel. Something is always hidden from the reader.
As soon as Ben gets to the dig at Sparta, he feels as if something is being hidden from him. There are constant references to us and others which Ben does pick upon. He has a constant desire to belong, to be part of the group. And even when he does feel he is included, he still feels something is being hidden from him. Which of course is true, and when this final secret is revealed, it’s horrific, and leads Ben to wish he didn’t know, and his desire for belonging vanishes. The group gives up it’s secret at the simultaneously with the ground giving up a horrific secret about ancient Sparta and the two combined make for a powerful conclusion.
I loved this book. Its full of secrets, hidden things, hidden feelings and even hidden history. And the writing is beautiful. There is a lot of dialogue and there were times I had to go back to remember who was talking to who, but I think that was because I wasn’t concentrating enough.
“And then all at once the weather began to weigh on him. It reminded him of Oxford and all that Oxford entailed. It became a burden of water he carried from place to place with his head bent, as if the rain chastened him.”
“It is a mystery archaeology has failed to solve. No-one has found anything better than the fictions of fable and story. Sparta is all secrets and no actions. All rumours without substance. All rumours and chattering and whispers.”“They play strange games, Chrystos said. He was right,but the game isn’t the heart of it. They play at being Spartans with their secrets and their ridiculous thefts and hunts. They are like cats practising kills. They are like children, whose games are cruel and facile or meaningless to anyone but themselves. But the game is....something like a joke told to avoid telling the truth. It is a comedy mask. There is more to it than play.”