Book Review : ‘An Imaginary Life’ by David Malouf - An Intimate Contact With The Environment Presented in the Form of a Beautiful Journey in the Book



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“What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become.”

- David Malouf

David Malouf’s ‘An Imaginary Life’ is a novella first published in 1978. The novella gives an account of the life of the famous and controversial Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled from Rome by emperor Augustus. The reasons behind his exile are uncertain but most critics claim that it was because of Ovid’s rather controversial choice of literary works.

The book, although fiction provides such a vivid and detailed account of things that it is impossible to get out of the story at times. The struggle of Ovid to try and control and power over nature and then finally give in and come into an intimate contact with the environment is presented in the form of a beautiful journey in the book.


Name of the Book - An Imaginary Life

Author’s Name - David Malouf

Genre - Historical and Biographical Fiction

Language - English

Synopsis - Spoiler Alert!

‘An Imaginary Life’ tells the story of the infamous Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled by Emperor Augustus from the city of Rome to the small island of Tomis, because of his disregard and irreverence to the crown. He wrote many pieces of literature that were rather controversial for his time and which resulted in his exile.

What happens when the hotshot poet who has such joie de vivre is sent to an isolated, foreign island? How will he cope? Will he make friends and be able to get his life back? Read more to find out.

About the Author


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Born on 20th March, 1934, David George Joseph Malouf is an Australian writer, poet, playwright and short-story writer. David Malouf’s literary works usually comprise historical fiction and are great reads. His first novel ‘Johnno’ came out in 1975 and is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man in Brisbane during the time of the Second World War.

Some of his work include ‘Fly Away Peter’, ‘Child’s Play’, ‘Harland’s Half Acre’ and ‘Remembering Babylon’. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2000, the International Dublin Literary Award in 1996 , the inaugural Australia-Asia Literary Award in 2008 and was even shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

About the Book

The book ‘An Imaginary Life’ entails the story of the infamous Roman poet Ovid during his exile in the islands of Tomis. At the beginning of the novel we see how the poet feels disoriented in a foreign land. 

He is taken in by a tribe called the Getae but he does not know their language or culture and feels like he is living among savages. But after discovering a lonesome poppy in the wilds, he is inspired. 

He believes that he is like the poppy and must grow in this environment too. He soon becomes more involved in the village activities and even takes to gardening. He also develops a close relationship with the village leader Ryzak.

Alongside Ryzak on a yearly deer chasing trip, Ovid recognizes a puzzling wild Child, a wild little youngster that has been brought among nature up in the blanketed woods. The locals wish to chase and catch The Child, accepting his spirit to be controlled by a wicked soul. 

Be that as it may, Ovid tries to become friends with The Child and welcome him into the clan for perception. The locals disdain this thought from the outset; apprehensive that The Child will before long change into a werewolf and attack the residents.

Eventually, Ryzak allows the Child to stay with them. Although Ryzak’s family, especially his old mother and the shaman are not so accepting of the intruder. Soon, the Child becomes sick which raises suspicion. Furthermore, Ryzak’s son Lullo acquires some illness followed by his father. 

The villagers and Ryzak’s family now decide that the Child must be executed to prevent anymore trouble but Ovid does not want to sacrifice the Child and so he runs away with him. When they retreat to the woods, a lasting bond forms between Ovid and the Child, who teaches Ovid to be more connected to nature.

Eventually, the jobs are turned around. Ovid turns into an elderly person that is taken care of by The Child. Ovid kicks the bucket in The Child's arms. His last transformation is one of acknowledgment. Ovid acknowledges his demise not as the end, but rather as a simple progress to another stage. 

He's content with giving his body over to base nature, an exercise he gained from his experience with The Child. By his own confirmation, Ovid states: "I have quit seeing deficiency with creation and have figured out how to acknowledge it" . Ovid's re-visitation of nature permits him to die calmly.

Themes Involved

The first theme that one encounters while reading the novel is that of suffering and personal growth. Ovid is exiled from his home into a fore-inland, where he does not know anybody nor does he speak the language. 

He struggles a lot in the beginning to adapt to the new place and the environment and when he finally does, he becomes a much better person than before. He acknowledges that endings are only beginning for the next journey and finally dies calmly.

The second theme in the novel is that of language, perception and nature. Ovid’s major problem at the beginning of his exile is the language barrier between the tribe and him. 

Similarly when he flees with the Child, they don’t understand each other but soon they come to a common term and learn to communicate through nature and soon reach an understanding.

Famous Quotes

  1. “I am immeasurably, unbearably happy. I am three years old. I am sixty. I am six. I am there.”

  2. “So these things happen, deep in our lives. We do not speak of them. We hide them even from ourselves, but they do not leave us.”

  3. “We are free at last to believe in ourselves.”

  4. “Or does not  knowing make him free?”

The Bottom Line

‘An Imaginary Life’ is an enlightening piece of literature. Although fiction, it makes you go through the journey of Ovid as if it was truly reality. It has adventure, tragedy and a closure like no other. I recommend this book a hundred times to anyone interested in the historical fiction genre or wants to read a book from the same. 

My Ratings for the Book - 4 on 5

Get the Book from Amazon -  An Imaginary Life

Written By - Sakshi Singh


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