Marina Warner, The Leto Bundle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002)

"We're the people who have no homeland -- apart from the one we find ourselves in, by chance, by luck, by fate. We're the ones whose footsteps tread out new paths that lead to the door we can call home."

An ambitious, absorbing stunner of a novel, The Leto Bundle gives voices to the lost refugees of human history, embodied in a single woman and her young twins. As she survives centuries of "progress" on the frayed edges of society, Leto personifies the experiences not only of immigrants and those homeless in their own countries, but also those who feel displaced despite relatively privileged positions as rock stars and researchers, activists and artists. The hopes of these troubled souls coalesce around the figure of a mysterious mummy that consists entirely of wrappings; the beautiful cartonnage, found at a site sacred to the goddess Leto, contains no body.

Inscriptions on the wrappings reveal different versions of a familiar story. The oldest describes Leto's seduction (or rape) by Zeus, Hera's curse on Leto to wander the Earth forever, Leto's flight through the wilderness with the newborn Apollo and Artemis, and the twists of fate that prevent her from ever finding peace. Though Leto has supernatural powers in ancient Greece, her suffering wears away her identity and strength. The archetypal exile, she is doomed to survive the gods who cast her out, facing an eternity of trying to protect her children from the ravages of nature and the cruelty of men.

The Leto Bundle unravels this story again and again in different texts, each purportedly a museum document or historical publication. Readers meet the Titan Leto in a pre-Christian era, when she has coupled with the god in the form of a bird and conceived children who hatch from an egg. Then she becomes Saint Laetitia, martyred by heathens for the crime of having been raped and impregnated. Escaping from her graveyard, she is turned into Lettice -- now considered a heathen herself, a stowaway young mother on a ship of treasures, taken into the protection of a would-be Henry Higgins. Another betrayal transforms her into Ella, a chambermaid with a badly wounded daughter in a war-torn Balkan city. Finally, she becomes Nellie, the migrant servant who learns that as long as her children live, she will always have something left to lose.

As Leto's story unfolds via centuries-old documents, she changes the lives of three people in the 1990s. One is museum curator Hortense Fernly, responsible for the display of the mummy wrappings and cartonnage. Another is schoolteacher Kim McQuy, founder of the internet site "History Starts With Us" (hswu.org), a resource and spiritual center for displaced people; it is he who dubs Fernly's mummy "the Leto Bundle" and elevates its absent Lady as the patron of refugees. The third is pop star Gramercy Poule, whose lyrics of disarticulation create a soundtrack for Kim's vision of Leto, and who hires a mysterious maid called Nellie to care for the animals on her estate.

All three characters struggle to understand what Leto's story means and why it seems so relevant to their own lives. To Kim, Leto symbolizes not only a general struggle for belonging, but specifically the birth mother he lost when he was adopted as a child from a war-torn Balkan city. To Hortense, Leto represents a balance between history and poetry -- the dry facts the curator works to preserve, combined with the deep human need for drama and myth. To Gramercy, Leto is poetry -- a reminder of the social idealism that once inspired her music but now threatens to disappear behind her fame and fortune.

These events take place in a parallel universe to our own. Alexandrian Greece is called Lycania, Britain is Albion, America is Shiloh, Sarajevo is Tirzah. It's not difficult to find the correlations, and the distance makes the story more universal...for although each location has distinguishing characteristics that indicate its real-world analogy, Leto could also have been at Wounded Knee, in Addis Ababa, in Saigon. "I came from somewhere, but now I'm everywhere/My everywhere is your here and now/I am the angel of the present time," sings Gramercy Poule. Kim McQuy interprets the words as a message from the goddess. Regardless of her origins, claims Kim, Leto is "about now, she's about the new Albion, the Albion of the planetary diaspora, of the lost peoples."

For Hortense, however, Leto has a traceable history, and as a researcher she feels obligated to stay close to the facts. For Hortense as well as Sir Giles Skipwith, who unearthed the Leto Bundle and found "Lettice" as a stowaway on his archaeological expedition, the fact that "the past was real and had taken place was infinitely more miraculous...than the fantastical shapes in which it was so often clothed." Her rational approach costs Hortense the opportunity to experience the ecstasy of revelation that Kim feels when he makes connections in the Leto texts. It also costs her the opportunity to experience personal ecstasy with Kim, for she won't allow herself to taste the social and sexual freedom for which he stands.

But because Kim lacks Hortense's scholarly patience, he remains oblivious to Leto's biggest secret. Kim was adopted as a child from Tirzah, the same devastated city where Leto was forced to give up custody of her son so that he could be raised, fed and cared for in Albion. His very name comes from a button found among his youthful possessions, inscribed "KIM," which Hortense's notes identify as an acronym for "Kale Iere Mnemosyne" -- the invocation "Lovely, Holy Memory." Kim spends months seeking mystical communion with Leto, the emblematic mother of all the displaced ones like him, but he fails to recognize "Nellie" when he comes face to face with the worn and weathered woman who believes she has found her lost son in him.

Even Hortense fails to recognize the emerging pattern, "the cults of fallen heroes, of dying gods in their mother's laps...the brutal logic of sacrifice," until it is too late to stop the cycle. Leto knows these mistaken identities and missed opportunities to be the hallmarks of Hell: "eternity...like perfect recall...going on and on repeating and repeating itself." Because The Leto Bundle tells the story of the fragmentation of history, many loose ends are never resolved -- particularly the critical question of whether Kim is, in fact, Nellie's son. Though Leto's bond with her children is the cause of her eternal suffering, Phoebus (Apollo) and Phoebe (Artemis) lack the most basic symbolic link to their mother, for the hatchlings have no navels.

This lack of corporeal connection parallels the withering patriotic pride in Albion, a nation where nearly everyone can be defined by a hyphenated ethnicity. Not only individuals but entire nations and their histories can become lost. During crises like the siege of Tirzah, cities become isolated, shadowed by "the huge, hulking, enfleshed figure of the present time." So too do human ties disintegrate; refugees attack colleagues as they fight for their shares of meager resources, and men brutalize women because "to act is not to be dead, especially to fuck." Leto experiences this and worse...the horror of chemical weapons, a brutal beating for seeking fresh water. What keeps her human is that she feels love, for her children, for her long-lost family, for that elusive place called home.

Kim chooses Leto as an inclusive icon because she is disconnected from religious status, ethnic nostalgia and national pride. He doesn't want the Leto Bundle repatriated "because she has no country left to go back to." But who owns her, and who gets to tell her stories? Conquerors, scribes, doctors of philosophy, tomb robbers, curators and artists all make claims. So do politicians, producers, religious leaders and activists, all with the best of intentions -- to use Leto to better the lives of those like her, oblivious to her enfleshed and needy presence among them in the present time. What voice can such an individual ever find within the march of History?

Warner's interweaving of legend, history, anthropology and politics makes The Leto Bundle both a fable for our time and a timeless tale of the human condition. Readers who enjoy the novels of such diverse mythmakers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Janette Turner Hospital and Salman Rushdie will find much to ponder here. And anyone who has ever felt like a refugee, a stranger in a strange land or a prophet in the wilderness will be moved and uplifted by this story. For even if, as Leto says, hope is a "bad sprite...deceiving you with her brightness," she offers the eternal consolation that it may be possible to end the cycle and find peace at last.

[Michelle Erica Green]