So how to summarize this book in a paragraph? It is a re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, told through the eyes of Psyche's sister, Orual. But underneath the surface story, it is the story of Orual's search for faith.
Orual has 2 mentors - a Greek tutor who advises her in the way of over-educated disbelief, and a soldier who has blind faith in the local deity, Ungit (aka Aphrodite or Venus). Torn between these two opposite world-views, Orual doesn't know what to make of what her eyes see when her sister is taken as a bride of a god (Ungit's son, aka Cupid).
There are some heart-wrenching passages in this book - after Orual sees the palace of Cupid and chooses to deny it; when Orual uses emotional blackmail to convince Psyche to trick Cupid; when Orual decides to stop being herself and become The Queen.
Some of my favourite passages:
"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"
(ie We can't meet God face to face until we strip away all of the masks and approach with total honesty)
"The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire. Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade."
(What a beautiful description of what happens when you first encounter God!)
There are strong Christian themes running through this book, despite being set amongst the Greek gods. But as Lewis says in Mere Christianity (another of my favourites!), "When I was an atheist I had to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong aobut the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic, there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others."
As in all of his books, Lewis' writing is straight-forward yet beautiful at the same time. One of these days, I ought to acquire a copy of the book - I've been able to track the deterioration of the library copy in the 10 or so years since I first read it. It's now taped together, and missing half of the front cover!