Author: A.C.E. Bauer
Genre: Contemporary, Retelling, Mythology, Young Adult
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 28 2012
Hardcover: 192 pages
Good looking, athletic, and smart, Gill Marsh is the most popular kid at Uruk High School, even though he is only a junior. When Enko, a new kid from Montreal, shows up, Gil is wary. Yet Enko is easy going and matches Gil’s athletic prowess without being a threat. Soon, the two become inseparable friends, practicing, studying, and double-dating.
Then suddenly, to everyone’s shock, Enko succombs to an aggressive cancer.
When Enko’s parents take his body and return to Canada, Gil is unable to even say good bye. He is inconsolable. Determined to find Enko’s grave, Gil sneaks away and heads north.
Closely based on the ancient story of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian King from 3000 BC, A. C. E. Bauer has carefully woven the classic elements of myth to follow Gil’s quest and explore the grief and growth of a young man.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Why did I read this book: Mythology retellings are my New Thing and was DYING to read this book. DYING.
I am currently kind of obsessed with retellings of mythological and/or historical works (it’s my New Thing) and when I heard about Gil Marsh, a Contemporary YA retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, I immediately placed it at the top of my Most Highly Coveted Books of 2012. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest known works of literature and it follows Gilgamesh, the oppressive king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia on an epic journey to become a better king and to understand the nature of death and mortality. One of the main things about it, is the king’s relationship with Enkidu, a mortal man sent by the Gods to distract Gilgamesh from oppressing his people. They become friends and it’s Enkidu’s death and ensuing grief that prompts Gilgamesh to go on his quest.
Needless to say, I was extremely excited about reading Gil Marsh. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations. At all.
Before I proceed any further though, I think I need to clarify what exactly those expectations were because they are important in understanding how I approached the book (and this review). I read Gil Marsh as a modern retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, this means that I searched for the connections to the original story within this one and how it was adapted to a modern audience. This also means that for the most part I did not read Gil Marsh as a stand-alone, self-contained novel, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t, given the aforementioned expectations.
In this retelling, Gil Marsh is the king of Uruk High School: the most popular kid because of its good looks, athletic prowess and his smarts. When Enko, a new guy from Montreal shows up and proves to be a worthy competitor, Gil is at first wary and even nasty to the guy. But soon they become inseparable friends: the reigning king and his deputy. But then Enko dies and Gil is grief-stricken. Enko’s parents take his body to be buried in Canada and Gil is unable to attend the funeral and say goodbye. Inconsolable, Gil runs away from home and goes on a journey to find Enko’s grave and maybe even restore him to life.
To start with, I think the biggest problem of Gil Marsh is in its poor attempt at retelling the original story. Bearing in mind that this is supposed to be a retelling of an epic story about an epic journey AND about grief and immortality, this story lacks depth and gravitas. We are supposed to believe in the powerful bonds of friendship between Gil and Enko – which is what prompts Gil’s journey – but there is very little of it beyond: “they became friends, they partied together”. Their relationship is insta-friendship, i.e. it happens suddenly and without any development whatsoever. There is a lot of telling here, not enough showing and a definite overuse of exclamation marks to portray all sort of emotions.
Similarly the theme of “immortality” is present but glossed over. Gil is supposedly grief-stricken but as he travels through Canada and gets into perils and hardships, he barely thinks of Enko or about death. One of the things he pursuits in the story, is the legend of an immortal blacksmith who made a ring that Enko left him. But it is never very clear whether Gil actually believes in this man’s immortality, what does it mean if he is indeed immortal, how does that connect with his own life and eventual death, etc, etc. Does he really believe that Enko could be brought back to life?
Mind you, this retelling didn’t need to be epic, it could have been a good, quiet contemplation of grief and death. But it isn’t, the story is just really superficial and most of the time, Gil just came across as a petulant child who kept having tantrums because he lost his teddy bear.
The very premise of how and why Gil goes on his “perilous” journey in the wilderness of CANADA was EXTREMELY contrived as well. He runs away from home in search of Enko’s grave in Canada and gets in all sorts of problems (his money is stolen, he is beaten up, he gets lost, etc) because he doesn’t know where the grave is. The idea is that he didn’t want to ask because he didn’t want his parents to know he was going as they would prevent him from going. But it’s hard to find that believable: it was a simple matter of ASKING his BEST FRIEND’ S parents about the location. He had time as he spent days and days working to save money, he concocted a whole story about a sport’s competition so he could leave, he could have asked as it was only natural he’d ask that.
It is hard to believe that a guy who was presented as the smarted guy of his school would be so naïve as Gil proved to be throughout the story. Furthermore, I felt that since he ended the story much as he began, there was no real substance to his story arc.
Beyond those, one thing really baffled me and I honestly don’t know what to make of it. For example, Enko is really hairy: he has thick hair that covered his knuckles, his arms, his chest, his shoulders, neck and legs. Gil calls him “Beast Man” and makes fun of him which he apologises for once he learns that Enko feels bad about it (“not everyone is born smooth and pretty”).”Smooth”? “Hairy”? “Beast boy”? Enko is bullied and excluded at first because he is “hairy”?
I believe this is one of the places where the author failed in adapting the story to a modern audience. I find that kind of unsettling and actually a bit insensitive to contemporary issues. Wasn’t there anything more contemporary or relevant that could have been used here? “Beast Boy”, although tying up with the original, is oddly out of place and out of time. I will grant that this could be used a metaphorical “blanket” for ANY type of bullying or prejudice but I am not really sure that these elements are successfully addressed either. Here is another quote that baffled me:
Though he was dark and hairy while Gil was golden and smooth, Enko was also smart, charming, strong, with an edge that Gil liked.
“Though”? Why “though”? This is a bit where Gil is sort of having a positive revelation so again, I ask myself: why “though”?! Like it is beyond belief that someone “dark” and “hairy” could also be “smart, charming, strong”?
Oh book, you disappointed me.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Excerpt from the first chapter:
First day of school. Coach yelled from across the field. “Marsh! Meet our latest recruit.”
Gil stopped stretching and jogged over. Coach spoke to a boy dressed in a running tank and shorts. Thick black hair covered the boy’s knuckles and arms. It poked out from his chest, his shoulders and neck. It covered his legs. A beast boy, Gil thought.
“. . . help you out. He’s one of our best runners.” Coach turned to Gil. “Marsh, this is Enko Labette. He’s from Quebec.”
Hmph. Gil wasn’t one of the cross-country team’s best runners. He was the best. No one else came close. He had led James E. Uruk High School to Nationals two years in a row.
“Hi,” Gil said.
Enko extended his hand in an oddly formal gesture. Gil shook it.
Enko had a powerful grip—a ring on his pinky finger dug in slightly. He smiled, producing a deep dimple in his chin. He was trying hard to impress.
Well, let’s see what the beast boy could do.
“You follow me,” Gil told him.
He started the warm-up jog just a notch faster than usual. Enko didn’t break a sweat.
“Round the back, over the Rock!” Coach yelled to the team. “No clock today. Keep to the running trail. I want it clean and even.”
Clock or no, Gil took off, in a sprint now, almost at racing speed.
They circled around the back of the school to one of the paths along the Green Valley Creek, over the footbridge to cross the water, then up the side of Overhang Rock. The other boys lagged behind.
Overhang Rock stood three hundred feet above town. Made of exposed, weathered red stone, it had a war memorial at the top, erected some ninety years ago by a veterans’ group. A running trail wound alongside a road that led to the memorial.
Gil ignored the running trail and chose a hiking path that switchbacked in the other direction, zigzagging at sharp angles around and up the other side of the Rock. At a walk, the trail provided a small challenge. At a run, it required all your concentration to get from one boulder to the next without falling. Gil could do the path in the dark—had done so numerous times. Enko, much to Gil’s surprise, took to it as if he could run it blindfolded.
By the time they reached the Memorial, sweat trickled down Gil’s back.
“We follow the road down,” he said. “Safer that way.”
Enko nodded. He wasn’t the least bit winded. Who was this kid?
Gil sprinted even faster downhill.
When they returned to the field behind the high school, Coach was waiting for them. “What the hell is the matter with you, Marsh? I said the running trail, not the climbing one!”
Gil leaned forward, hands on his thighs, panting. This had been more of a workout than he had expected. Enko breathed a little harder, too, but wasn’t out of breath.
“It’s okay, Coach,” Enko said. He had this weird French accent. “That was fun.”
Coach scowled. “Maybe Marsh can learn something from you.” He might have said more, but off in the distance two runners trickled onto the field.
“Cool-down walks!” he yelled. “Everyone,” he added pointedly to Gil.
When Coach turned to address the other boys, Enko slapped Gil on the shoulder. Gil walked ahead, ignoring the gesture. Beast Boy had just outperformed him. No one had done that before. And Coach had noticed.
Rating: 3 – Really Bad
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