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Marina Warner: The Leto Bundle

Leto was a female Titan but, as we would expect from Marina Warner, she is much more in this novel. The novel opens in a fictitious country that looks very much like England but is called Albion. There is the New Albion Museum, located in the town of Enoch. People are waiting for customs clearance and one person waiting is Dr. Hortense (Hetty) Fernly, an archeologist at the museum. She is waiting for the Leto Bundle to clear customs. This is a sarcophagus, containing various grave goods (though, as we learn later, no body). The remains, with, as we learn later, a body taken from elsewhere, are displayed in an obscure part of the museum and nicknamed Helen, despite the fact that the grave goods clearly relate to a burial a thousand years after the fall of Troy. However, some of the locals, looking for a new patriotic wellspring and encouraged by a CD-Rom the museum puts out calling the body Helen, latch onto this and come to the museum and congregate round the display. The group becomes incensed when the body is removed and demands an explanation, led by a young teacher called Kim McQuy.

McQuy was adopted from Tirzah as a young child (but not a baby) by his parents. They travelled to Tirzah to find a baby to adopt and adopt him. (The real Tirzah is a biblical city in the Occupied Territories). He is part of a New Albion movement and founded History Starts With Us (HSWU) (a kind of off-the-wall political movement, active only on the web). As a result of his protests, the museum led by its new director, who is far more into public relations that his predecessor, decides to hold a public forum at which Dr. Fernly is to speak. She has long since realised that the findings have nothing to do with Helen of Troy but, rather, seem to be some cult of Leto. The director, however, describes her as follows: Hetty is a scholar, and she keeps to the strict paths of intellectual enquiry. She knows she must only explore within the limits of what can be verified. Myths, fairy tales aren’t to her taste.. This, presumably, is not entirely in accordance with Warner’s views. McQuy gives an interview to a Big Issue-type magazine about Helen/Leto in which he says She ‘s a figure for the way we live now… She is like millions of people who make their home where they can. She’s an alternative story, that’s not about people springing up here and being rooted – she’s about now, she’s about the New Albion, the Albion of the planetary diaspora, of the lost peoples.. Clearly this is something McQuy can identify with.

We have also been following the story of Leto, through old translations of the manuscripts found at the original site of the grave. These show her as in the legend. At the beginning she has just given birth to twins. The father was, apparently, a god, who abandoned her. She is now in some distress and gets the help of a she-wolf, who can converse with her. (The mythological Leto was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Apollo and Artemis.) However, where Warner makes this interesting is that Leto keeps reappearing at different periods of history. From her first appearance in mythological times, she moves to thirteenth century Cadenas-la-Jolie, another place where there is considerable political turmoil and territorial disputes. Once again, her antecedents are mysterious, once again she has sex with a powerful man, this time a political ruler and once again she has twins – Phoebe and Phoebus. Unfortunately, once again, all goes wrong, and she has to flee as before.

The Leto Bundle originally came from an archeological dig, presumably in Greece, though the name of the country is not given. We do know, however, that it is an island, called Lycania, so it may well be Crete or one of the other Greek Islands. The original expedition was carried out by Sir Giles Skipwith, a rich dilettante who has financed it by what we would now call crowd-funding, i.e. getting money from his rich friends and even persuading the navy to provide a ship. It is on this island that Leto and her children re-emerge. They stow away on the ship and are discovered by Skipwith. He takes them under the wing but the captain and the crew do not approve and remove them at the dead of night. They re-emerge in twentieth century Tirzah, where there is fighting going on, where Phoebe is badly burned and they lose touch with Phoebus. They finally emerge in contemporary Albion, where Leto is now called Ella and then Nellie.

Meanwhile, the Kate Bush-like pop star Gramercy Poule, whose manager we saw at the beginning at the customs shed, has taken an interest in the Leto Bundle and got to know Kim McQuy. She will come across Leto twice, first when Leto is working as a hotel maid, petty thief and prostitute and then later when Gramercy hires Leto as a animal carer for the stray animals she and her now ex-boyfriend have adopted. At the same time the Leto cult is continuing under the guiding hand of Kim McQuy, who is reading all the texts about it, which Skipwith had obtained (from a local butcher, who used them for wrapping his meat!) But McQuy is interested in helping immigrants who have trouble with the authorities and clearly Leto and Phoebe fall into this category. Meanwhile Leto is looking for her missing son, determined that he is still alive.

The plot is, of course, much more complicated than this brief outline I have given. It deals with many themes which Warner addresses superbly. Clearly, the issue of exile, immigration and refugees is key. Leto and her children are exiles, immigrants and refugees (as well as victims of war and male brutality) over a period of many years. It is also a feminist approach because clearly Leto, as a woman, struggles and suffers simply because she is a woman. From the mythological period, when she is stoned for having illegitimate children (let us not forget that she was raped) to the present day when she has to work as a petty thief and prostitute to keep herself and her daughter, while looking for her son, we can see that, particularly in times of war and political upheaval, it is all too often women that are the main victims. Warner is also concerned with the nature of national identity. It is interesting that the leader of the movement about a renewed Albion is, in fact, an immigrant from Tirzah though adopted by Albion parents. Religion is also key though Warner appears to have ambiguous views about religion. Religious conflicts have riven the world, drenched populations in blood – here, in this country, as well as in the larger communities we inhabit. But human beings need religious sentiment. The crucial question is not to make any particular religion, faith or creed the basis of the identity of the nation. That’s why we need a new secular faith, a church so broad that everyone can belong, says one character. Whether the cult of an individual – be it Leto or, as Warner mentions on more than one occasion, Princess Diana – is the answer is left unclear

However, there is much more to Warner’s novel which I cannot convey in a short review. There are complicated plots and sub-plots, a host of rich ideas and many diverse characters, good, bad and in-between. Though the novel is in print in the UK, it it not as well-known as it should be. This may, in part, be because readers do not take to what we might call the fantasy elements – the use of myth, legend and, in this novel, schoolyard games and rhymes – but this should not put you off as this really is a very fine novel that deserves to be much better known.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Chatto & Windus