Literature allows us to enter another person’s mind. Often, it is the same one – the writer’s, refracted and bent through characters who, nevertheless, often have too much in common.
Roxana Robinson’s work is an effort to shatter the constraints of consciousness, bringing readers inside the head of radically different characters, from the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in a nonfiction biography to a young heroin addict and his parents in her 2008 novel, Cost.
Robinson continues this project in her new novel, Sparta. As Heller McAlpin writes in the Washington Post, it tells the story of “Conrad Farrell, a classics major at Williams College whose thesis is on the ancient Greek warrior culture of Sparta. When he announces his intention to join the Marines in the spring of 2001, his parents are aghast — even though the country is not at war. ‘Their family was bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian,’ Robinson writes. But Conrad insists that he wants ‘to do something that has consequences. This is the biggest challenge I know.’ ”
The novel does not focus on the combat Farrell saw, but the fighting the now 26-year-old remembers after returning home. “Robinson,” McAlpin writes, “captures the terrors of flashbacks, insomnia, headaches, panic attacks, impotence, inchoate rage and suicidal thoughts — all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although no longer in danger, Conrad finds it impossible to let down his guard. He’s leery of crowds and windows. He flies into a terrifying rage when a woman’s handbag knocks into him in a crowded restaurant.”
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Ron Carlson observes, “Conrad makes his own efforts to cope, but he can’t breach the new distance that has opened between him and his old life. … In this nuanced novel, we watch this fine, troubled young man as he chooses his own mission for the home front.”
Sparta, writes Elizabeth Taylor of the Chicago Tribune, “is a call to action, a plea for the troops who feel at odds and flummoxed in their attempt to rejoin the society they've left behind. But rather than a message disguised as fiction, Sparta is a beautifully written novel that illuminates what happens when we're estranged from the world as we know it.”
- Visit Roxana’s official website.
- Watch Roxana read from and discuss Sparta.
- Listen to her discuss Sparta with Tom Ashbrook.
- Read an interview with her about writing the novel.
Roxana Robinson’s Top Ten List
1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869).
2. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
4. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900).
5. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (1908).
6. The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (1966–75).
7. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958).
8. Rabbit Angstrom — Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) — by John Updike.
9. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980).
10. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999).