Of what do you think when you see the word “ring”? Such a little word that rings through our culture. Do you first think of the following noun?
“With this ring I thee wed…” – Solemnization of Matrimony, The Book of Common Prayer, Oxford University Press.
Or this one?
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” – Gandalf’s translation of the inscription in the ring, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Part 1 of The Lord of the Rings, rpt. London: George Allen and Unwin 1974.
Or do you prefer the ring fished from the depths of the Rhine, greed for which tragically separates Siegfried from his beloved Brünnhilde, in Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen. I give the German title rather than the English translation as a reminder that André Alexis, author of the recently released novel, Ring (Toronto: Coach House Books 2021), wrote it during his year in Berlin. Ring is the final installment of Alexis’s quincunx, and while it can stand alone, it is enriched by its four precursors.
Because I bring the above to my reading of Ring, I wonder whether I am the right person to write this review. Surely a romance novel requires a younger reviewer, not someone who expects this novel to go the way of Romeo and Juliet, or Tristan and Iseult, or Orpheus and Eurydice. I love Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but loathe the 2005 film version that reduces it to a love story — they hate each other, no, they love each other, but many obstacles and misunderstandings must be cleared out of the way. That said, nothing by André Alexis could be so simple.
Gwenhwyfar Lloyd, twice called Guinevere in the novel (an allusion to King Arthur’s wife, who unfaithfully loves Lancelot), takes an instant dislike to tall, dark, and handsome Tancred Palmieri, at a fundraising event (the contemporary dressy equivalent of a ball?). In the opera, Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), Tancred is a hero of the First Crusade (source: Oxford Dictionary of First Names). Tancredi is the nephew of the prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Moreover, this prince charming is also the prince of thieves. In The Hidden Keys, he is hired to find a treasure, and as a result of his success, he inherits great wealth.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, rpt. London: The Folio Society, 1975 (p. 13).
Gwen is on the rebound from her unfaithful ex, Roland, and rather than seeking love, she enjoys the company of Tancred’s friend, Olivier Mallay, who is kind and considerate. But one “overwhelming and unforecast storm” (p. 75) later, things change.
There’s magic in the air, and I don’t mean love. Rather, I refer to the divine being, who shows up, one way or another, in all five books. Which god, which divine, is not clear. What is clear is that Gwen inherits a magic ring. With this ring she can make three wishes to change the man she loves. If she doesn’t follow the rules, or if she doesn’t use the ring, bad things will happen. (And obeying the ring brings unpleasant consequences.)
A ring that bears an inscription, that grants wishes at a cost, and compels the ring-bearer to obey its rules. Hmm. Maybe Gwen should be looking for a volcano or deep river in which to dispose of the ring… Besides which, as anyone who has been married as long as I have can tell you, forcing your partner to change is not the path to happiness.
I appreciate that this magic ring does not cause war, and that it has empowered women for centuries. BUT. That Gwen is compelled to believe in and use the ring, because of threatened consequences if she does not, seems to make her the ring’s victim (and what does that say about faith?). Despite the fact that she makes her three wishes as wisely as she can, there seems something passive about her role. Something accepting of her small betrayal of Tancred by making him the unwitting recipient of her wishes. She capitulates to the magic of the ring, when really we want to see her capitulate to the magic of love.
She does make a choice, however, that could be important to the future of the ring, and this choice is not one of the three wishes. She chooses to love a thief, the very man who has the skill to find the box in which the ring is hidden, and open it. But that’s not in the novel.
Much more is in the novel, including several other lovers, some of whom are characters from previous books, such as Professor Bruno (Brünnhilde?) from Days by Moonlight and Robbie from Pastoral. There’s a poem about Aphrodite, and a shrine to Canadian poets. Not your run of the mill Harlequin Romance, which is the form that Alexis toys with here, while also amusing the reader with a multitude of allusions. Certain changes, such the character who was sinister in The Hidden Keys becoming a charming man in the context of love, hint at the similar transformation of complex issues. Or as Gwen puts it after a conversation with Alana Wilcox, “Isn’t it interesting how many different worlds exist side by side?” (p. 115), and later, “(It consoled Gwen to think that her home should have such boundless life in the minds of others, its names and landmarks different in different imaginations.)” (p. 230)
Ring raises questions about love, marriage, fidelity, and the divine. Only one thing for it: read Ring and then repair to the Wheatsheaf Tavern, or your local pub, to talk over love.
Reviewed by Debra Martens.
“I turned to Aphrodite, a god at the heart of my language and culture. In fact, one chapter of Ring is an homage to ancient Greek culture and poetry.” – André Alexis, Canadian Writers Abroad interview.
The review title refers to lines from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering”
The banner photo of the five-petalled Borage flower was taken by D. Martens, who also snapped the hand, the star, and scanned the Tarot card.
The Rosa moyesii below is scanned from Flowers of the World by Frances Perry with illustrations by Leslie Greenwood (rpt. Spring Books 1987). Perry informs us that fossils show that roses have been around longer than us, that the earliest picture of a rose is in the House of Frescoes at Knossos, Crete, and most pertinently, that Aphrodite used rose perfume to anoint the dead Hector in The Iliad. (pp. 257-258)