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Mary Renault was educated at Clifton High School, Bristol and St Hugh's College, Oxford. Having completed nursing training in 1937, she then wrote her first novel Promise of Love. Her next three novels were written during off-time duty whilst serving in the war. In 1948 she went to live in South Africa but travelled widely. It was her trip to Greece and her visits to Corinth, Samos, Crete, Delos, Aegina and other islands, as well as to Athens, Sounion and Marathon, that resulted in her brilliant historical reconstructions of Ancient Greece. Mary Renault died in 1983.
Mary Renault is deeply loved by many, though is today not nearly as widely read as she deserves to be. Just as Rosemary Sutcliff gave me Roman Britain, so did Renault guide me — and so many others — to Classical Greece. As with many (though not all) great novelists, readers can legitimately debate which is her best book. Reading is a dialogue, after all, not a monologue: we bring our own taste, personality, our age and times, the state of our life when we pick up a book … and that has much to do with whether we hate, like, love a novel. I’m going to name what I do think is Renault’s best. The King Must Die is the first of two novels about the mythic figure of Theseus (it can absolutely be read alone), taking him from childhood to the island of Crete and an unforgettable imagining of what Minoan Crete (before 1500 BCE!) might have been like at the height of that culture, including the celebrated bull-dancers. We can’t know, but Renault’s magnificent act of creation lets us imagine it with her, and be wrapped in wonder. It is a beautifully-told story, written in a way that opens a reader up to the idea of the strangeness of the past (more on this later) — while offering characters that are both mythic and profoundly immediate and intense. I don’t say masterpiece often, but I think this book is. Selected by our Spring 2021 Guest Editor, Guy Gavriel Kay
Shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize. Telling the story of Alexander the Great this is the first part of a trilogy and covers Alexander’s childhood. This is a fictionalised account but Renault has a keen eye for historical detail and an obvious interest in her subject matter. A great start to a superb trilogy.