Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

Lucky you, bloggy friends! Two guest reviews by Mumsy in such a short time!

I was expecting Jenny to start Mary Renault Week by reviewing The Charioteer, a novel that (as Jenny correctly notes) only Jenny loves.  And then I would have started my review by saying that Mary Renault is actually at her best when she is writing about ancient Greece, about which she appears to know Everything.

(And because I find it difficult to switch tracks, I have now said just that.)

The Mask of Apollo is somewhat different from most of Renault’s novels in that it features an entirely fictional narrator: Nikeratos, an Athenian actor. Because Mary Renault apparently spent several previous lives in ancient Greece (not really!  I just made that up!), she is able to invest Niko’s world  with small details that make his life very present and very engaging.  This is Niko, describing his first appearance on stage at age 7, in the role of the murdered son of Hector, being mourned by Hecuba:

I had already heard [the actor playing Hecuba], of course, lamenting with Andromache; but that is her scene, and I had my own part to think of.  Now the voice seemed to go all through me, making my backbone creep with cold.  I forgot it was I who was being mourned for…All I remember for certain is my swelling throat and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.


My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play.  The sponsor would lose the prize; Kroisos the crown; my father would never get a part again; we would be in the streets begging our bread.  And after the play I would have to face terrible Hecuba without a mask.  Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running…


The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted me gently.  I was gathered in the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.   The flute, which had been moaning softly throughout the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

If Nikeratos’s life if fiction, his times are real, and his life’s thread has become entangled with those of Dion of Syracuse,  Dion’s mentor Plato, and the dissolute Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysios the Younger. Niko’s involvement with these prominent men and their grand affairs of state is minor and tangential, yet it is the actor, and not the philosophers and statesmen,  who is able to see what the principal actors cannot: the arc of the vast drama being enacted on a world stage, and its inevitable tragic end.  It is Niko, with his knowledge of the theater, who recognizes the uses of political theater.

What I adore about Mary Renault is that she rarely falls into that trap of making historical events feel too contemporary. Nikeratos’s times may have parallels to our own, but Renault is marvelous at highlighting aspects that are utterly foreign to modern times. The Mask of Apollo is permeated with a spiritual sensibility which I found completely fascinating precisely because it is so different from the sensibilities of current culture. The pervasive sacredness of daily life and the interactions of the human and the divine are presented in ways that manage to be at once thoughtful and weighty without being even slightly trivial or childish – a neat trick when you consider how fairy-tale-ish Greek mythology has become to contemporary eyes.

Okay. Also: there are some bits that drag. (I admit it, but I still loved it.) Oh, and also, you should definitely read everything Mary Renault wrote, except The Charioteer. (You could probably skip The Last of the Wine too, if you want.)

Humph. I feel there was unnecessary trash-tralking of my beloved Charioteer in this post, but never mind, I have managed not to insert any snide little [sic]s into this post, despite temptation. On Friday I shall tell you why you should definitely not skip The Charioteer.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault”

    1. Oh, I love your post. You say so many of the things that I also love about this book.

      THANK YOU for your ongoing support of The Charioteer. When the Jenny-and-Mumsy Mary Renault wars commence you will be on the right side. I have a post about it scheduled for Friday but I don’t at all feel I have managed to do it justice. You’re perfectly right that it’s difficult to write about the books you love the best.

    1. Are you enjoying it generally? I know that my emotional attachment to Mary Renault makes me a very unobjective fan.

  1. I think I did, it’s hard to remember. It was on my shelf for a very long time, I must have read it at least twice. But it was a mass-market paperback copy (they fall apart on me too quickly) so I no longer have that book here.

Comments are closed.