Spoiler warning: this review contains spoilers; if you wish to avoid them, please return to this review once you have finished the book.
In the days since I finished this book I have wondered how on earth I was going to put my thoughts about it into words. The first thing I should say is that this is a beautiful novel, written with intelligence and warmth. The characters, the setting, the story and the symbolism were all perfectly balanced so as to make a near-perfect book.
Laurie, our protagonist, is a soldier recently wounded at Dunkirk. We follow his time in hospital as he recovers and as he falls desperately in love with a conscientious objector working on the ward. Their love story is understated, shown almost entirely in words not said and an inexplicable closeness between the two men as they are drawn towards each other more and more. This is contrasted with Laurie’s reunion with Ralph Lanyon, a boy he knew from his school days and with whom he had shared an adolescent infatuation. A love triangle of sorts ensues. Should Laurie choose Ralph, older than him and much more experienced in life and love, fully accepting of his homosexuality and subject of Laurie’s teenage desires? Or should he choose young Andrew, naïve yet steadfast in his beliefs, an image of purity and light and innocence with whom circumstances of situation and belief may make a relationship impossible?
Usually I am not particularly interested in love triangles because I can see the merits of either option – and indeed, I did go back and forth a couple of times over the course of the story – but by about halfway through I was settled on Andrew as the right choice, if only because it was painfully obvious how in love they were with one another, though of course Laurie and Ralph loved each other too. I felt gratified when Laurie came to the same conclusion as I did, despite Ralph’s misguided offer to allow Laurie to keep seeing Andrew even during a relationship of their own. The novel’s ending, therefore, in which Andrew is forced to confront his feelings for Laurie and decides he must run away from them, left me feeling disappointed. I kept thinking that all Laurie needed to do was to explain that he and Ralph were finished and then sweep Andrew off his feet, but alas it did not happen. I had been so invested in the idea that they would find a way to make it work that it all seemed rather bleak. Laurie’s rush to Ralph at the end seemed like he was settling. However, this is no longer the way I see things.
I needed a few days to internalise it all, but I finally realised that the uplifting ending I was willing to happen was not compatible with the kind of book this really is. The Charioteer is not the sort of novel with a simple, pleasing Happy Ending™. Instead, it is complex and probably much better, though less immediately satisfying than a straightforwardly successful love story. One realises that Laurie’s view of Andrew – and therefore one’s own – was somewhat idealistic. Andrew as a paragon of virtue who could do no wrong, innocent even of his own feelings, is firmly incompatible with the Andrew who punches Bunny and has known and been ashamed for some time of his feelings for Laurie. At the very least it is clear that Andrew was not ready to accept his sexuality. Perhaps he never will be, though one hopes otherwise.
Ralph’s flaws, on the other hand, were apparent from the beginning. Their relationship is much more one of equals, despite Ralph’s higher status both at school and in the army. Ralph’s need to help other people to the point of creating more problems for both himself and the ostensible recipient of said help is balanced quite nicely with Laurie’s impulsive nature and inability to stand by while injustice occurs despite any logical arguments against intervention. Laurie will be able to have a much fuller relationship with him than he probably ever could have done with Andrew. They can live together, fully cognisant and accepting of their shared sexuality and therefore able to enjoy all parts of their love for one another.
Of course, it must also be noted that my initial disappointment about Andrew is testament to Mary Renault’s ability to write characters. This extends to the whole cast of supporting characters, from Laurie’s ward-mate Reg and his wife, to his mother and her new beau, to the dazzling socialites of gay society. This was only helped by the incredible narration provided by Joe Jameson in the audiobook. A rare talent it is, indeed, to be able to give individual voices and depths to so many different characters such that I was sometimes unable to believe that it was all being done by one person.
Another wonderful thing about this book was its subtle yet effective thematic handling of love, perfectly contextualising the aforementioned character drama. The charioteer of the title refers to a metaphor for love as explained by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus. The charioteer, in this case Laurie, must drive along smoothly while managing two very different horses. While not explained fully in the book itself, the two horses represent lust and pure romantic love (or eros and agape). Others have commented that Ralph represents the former and Andrew the latter. While I can see that this comparison makes a certain sense, it is not how I viewed the characters while reading and I still think that it is a somewhat simplistic view. Instead, I now think that Laurie’s love for Ralph represents the perfect balance between the two for which the charioteer should strive. In addition, the physical copy of Phaedrus within the novel is a nice representation of the handing down of a sexual and romantic legacy, first Ralph to Laurie and then Laurie to Andrew. Perhaps we can imagine that one day Andrew will have cause to give it to someone else.
All in all, this novel is a beautiful creation. Full of realistic characters and relationships, masterful foreshadowing, dialogue which manages to say so many things at once and a love story which, while it may not go as initially expected, is ultimately very satisfying.