Ante’s Inferno, by Griselda Heppel, tells the story of 12-year-old girls Ante and Florence, as they journey through the Underworld with a boy called Gil who died a hundred years earlier. Following a path that leads to the centre of Hell, they face strange dangers and mythical monsters, while at the same time learning more about each other. For Ante, worse than the dangers of the Underworld are the fears that Florence may actually be dead, and that she, Ante, may have killed her.
Thanks to Griselda Heppel and Matador for sending me a review copy of this book.
Ante’s Inferno, as you’ve probably gathered from the title, loosely follows the events of Dante’s Inferno, part of Dante's The Divine Comedy. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante is led through the different levels of Hell by his guide, the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Dante’s Inferno itself references the sights and monsters seen during Aeneas’ trip to the Underworld in Book 6 of Virgil’s Roman epic The Aeneid. Ante’s Inferno is therefore building on many layers, creating its own, new, interpretation of these ideas.
This could have come out a little muddled or even too derivative of the earlier stories, but Ante’s Inferno never falls into either of these problems. It’s fresh, exciting, and very cleverly thought out. It explores Classical mythology with respect but also with a great deal of fun, and it brings a funny, modern twist to some of the sections of Hell that are found in Dante’s work. The Shopping Maul, in particular, is a very relevant metaphor for modern day readers, while also remaining entertaining and light-hearted. It reminded me very much of the modern-retelling of myths in the Percy Jackson books, and I think fans of that series would love this.
The story also features some great characters. Ante is our hero, but although she is a very sympathetic character, she does not always act very well in certain circumstances. Florence is a bully, but she is also a complex character who sees her behaviour towards Ante a little differently than Ante does. She is often quite arrogant and forceful, but she is also brave and proactive, and she proves that she does care about others. Neither character is a simple cut-out, and Gil is even more complex, but all three are extremely likeable in their own way. As Ante and Florence accompany Gil through the Underworld, it becomes apparent that this is less a story about Hell and more a story about friendship, misunderstanding, and, in particular, forgiveness.
This ties in with what I saw as one of the main themes of Ante’s Inferno, and is probably what impressed me most about the book. Despite being a story about a journey through Hell, Ante’s Inferno seems to show that there is really no such thing as pure good and evil. Human behaviour is far more complicated than this, and there are subtleties to every action. For Ante, Florence and Gil, it is their own guilt, misunderstanding of others, and tendency to focus on themselves, which leads to tragedy and suffering. Hell seems to be presented as a place that people create for themselves, based on their own guilt and obsessions.
Perhaps the closest the book comes to depicting pure evil is in the fields of Passchendaele, which are vividly and emotionally described. This section was extremely moving, and, although I adore Classical mythology and loved those parts of the book, this easily took over as my favourite bit. But even here, the horrors and suffering that human beings will inflict on each other are so much more complicated than a simple battle of good against evil. Even the Devil admits to having nothing to do with human evil; he is simply the punisher, not the driver. The message seems to be that people have to take responsibility for their own actions, and to prevent suffering by learning to understand each other better. The book presents a much more complex investigation of morality than I had expected, and I found it very interesting and thoughtful.
On one level, Ante’s Inferno is a pacy, gripping and exciting tale about the Underworld, about Classical mythology, monsters and action. It’s funny, moving and extremely enjoyable, and at the end of each adventure I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. But Ante’s Inferno also has a deeper layer, and what it really seems to be about is people, about human behaviour, friendship and guilt, and about taking responsibility for one’s own actions. I found it thoughtful and moving, as well as a lot of fun!
Thank you to Griselda Heppel for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.