Where Three Roads Meet by Sally Vickers

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There is some irony involved in Sally Vickers’ contribution to the Cannongate Myth series.  Her fictional take on Oedipus , Where Three Roads Meet, might leave those without much knowledge about Oedipus, or Freud’s take on it, a little confused while striking those with such knowledge as too obvious.  As a result it would seem to have a rather small reader “sweet spot.”

As attentive CM readers will know, however, I am a fan of the series.  I have in fact, read all of the books published so far except one (which I should rectify soon).  And I enjoyed Three Roads.  It is just that it feels a little thin if you don’t have a larger appreciation for the subject matter; it is almost too subtle for the novice.

For those saying “Wait a minute, how about some background here?” allow me to explain.  Where Three Roads Meet takes the form of a dialogue between Sigmund Freud, the famous psychoanalyst, and Tiresias, the famous seer of Thebes.

Vickers situates the story in the context of Freud’s having fled from the Nazis in Vienna and his battle with cancer (which she succinctly outlines in an introduction).  This short work then consists of a sort of Socratic conversation between the two figures where each gives their take on the famous myth.  I like the way Alan Cheuse describes it:

Tiresias tells Freud the story of his own troubled childhood and engages the doctor in a dialogue about Oedipus, the king of ancient Thebes, whose story weighs on Western civilization like a great psychic anchor; Freud has made this myth — the monumental story of murder, incest and recognition — the foundation of all his analytical work.

Incident by incident, scene by scene, the two men parse out the Oedipus tale, with each speaker adding his own particular wisdom to the story: Tiresias offers his eyewitness account; Freud, his deep understanding of the power of the repressed injury suffered by the king.

More, including “spoilers”, below.

So if, like me, you come to the book with little but a vague sense of Oedipus – killed his dad, slept with his mom – or Freud – all males want to do this – then you might miss the fact that Vickers has set up an argument.  Here is how she describes it in an interview:

“Oedipus is a central myth for psychoanalysts,” she says over coffee. “When I came to train, obviously we talked about it and I thought, Freud’s not read it correctly! Oedipus is an adult man when he falls in love with Jocasta, he’s not a child. Secondly, Freud didn’t take any account of the actions of the parents, Laios and Jocasta. They set out to murder their child. That seems to be a very interesting feature of this myth. So I think it was inevitable that in doing this book I would try and explain it to Freud. I’ve been dying to do that for years.”

This part of it went right over my head for the most part until I read some reviews.  Likewise, not knowing very much about Freud I am sure I missed some of the interesting things Vickers is saying about Freud or at least the contrast between Freud’s perspective and Tiresias.

With all that said, Where Three Roads Meet is a quick and enjoyable read.  Vickers’ touch makes the conversations light enough not to be ponderous but with enough story to hold your interest.

The portrait of Tiresias, and the resulting retelling of a number of myths and classical figures is deftly done in many ways.  For some in fact, the conversational style may be a more enjoyable way to encounter not just Oedipus but Delphi, Thebes, and other classical touchstones.  Each snippet forms a vignette; an imagined glimpse of what these mythical places might really have been like.

But as noted above, it does feel a bit thin in places.  And as such it serves best as something of an introduction, or teaser if you will, to these stories.  It is more in the form of a novella, and thus a sketch, rather than a full fledged novel.

So whether you will find it unclear or obvious has a lot to do with your knowledge and interest in the subject matter.  I found it enjoyable while still feeling that I was missing some of the nuance.  Perhaps, this is one of those books that would benefit from a second read in order to appreciate the subtle points that one can miss when reading for the first time.

Where Three Roads Meet may have a niche ideal audience, but it is nonetheless the work of a talented writer and is sure to be through provoking to expert and novice alike.

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Kevin works in communications and public affairs. He tries to squeeze in as much reading (and blogging) as he can between work, family and watching sports.

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