In 2020, we started our Virtual Book Club – an informal group meeting online to discuss classically-themed books – and we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much that something born out of lockdown has become a permanent fixture in our events calendar, and you’re very welcome to join us (it’s free and open to all – just send Katrina an email at firstname.lastname@example.org)!
The Emperor’s Babe review by Dorothy Grace Franklin (@dorothysbookshelf)
*This review contains spoilers, so be warned.*
Trigger/ Content Warnings: sexual assault, rape, adult/minor relationship, confinement, death, Roman slavery
“The Emperor’s Babe” by best-selling author of “Girl, Woman, Other”, Bernardine Evaristo, is an experimental tragedy told in verse, following Zuleika, a “reluctant teenage bride with no idea about true love”.
Yet how do we define this type of tragedy? Roman Tragedy, like many other elements of Roman culture, was heavily influenced by its Greek counterpart, and a Greek Tragedy is defined by Collins Dictionary as “a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal”, a concept which this book plays with, but adapted to a modern, almost lyrical, form. A feature of many tragedies, most famously, Shakespeare’s, is the death of the titular character(s), and this book is no different, as both the aforementioned ‘Emperor’ and ‘Babe’ perish by the end.
This book is reflective and tense, sprinkled with humour, yet at its heart, it is a gritty tale of survival. The book dissects its core themes of race in Britain’s classical history, Roman views on sex, and classical perceptions of women and girls.
Inventive, this book combines cockney rhyming slang, Roman Latin and modern colloquialisms, drawing parallels between our world and Roman Britain, specifically, between third century CE Londinium and modern-day London. As Zuleika studies Greek and Roman poetry and begins to write her own, we as the readers are invited to compare our literary criticisms of those who we consider to be the ‘greats’ of classical literature with Zuleika’s views (and her fledgling composition), prompting the question, how long will our definition of ‘great’ art live on? How timeless is timeless?
“Silver-tongued and merry-eyed, this is a story in song and verse, a joyful mash-up of today and yesterday. Kaleidoscoping distant past and vivid present, The Emperor’s Babe asks what it means to be a woman and to survive in this thrilling, brutal, breathless world.”
Everything Under: A Review By Tracy Rabaiotti (@tracyrabaiotti)
“The places we are born come back to us. They disguise themselves as words, memory loss, nightmares. They are the way we sometimes wake with a pressure on our chests that is animal-like or turn on a light and see someone we’d thought was long gone standing there looking at us.”
Daisy Johnson, author of short story collection The Fens, twists a well-known tale from Greek myth in her 2018 Man Booker prize shortlisted debut Everything Under, which explores the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter and questions the nature of fear and the inevitability of fate.
“Do you believe, she said, that if you knew what was going to happen you would be able to not do it?”
The novel tells the story of Gretel and her eccentric free-spirited mother Sarah, who shared a secret language of invented words and a seemingly carefree existence until the night Sarah vanished, leaving her sixteen-year-old daughter to fend for herself. Working as a lexicographer many years later, Gretel’s life is turned upside down when her mother returns and she is forced to care for Sarah as she struggles with dementia. Gretel’s repressed memories of her time on the canal begin to surface and centre around Marcus, a lonely runaway with a shameful secret who found refuge in their easygoing existence before disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived.
Allusions to water, parallels with dark fairytales from European folklore, and the ever-present menace of the ‘canal thief’, an unseen creature which terrorises those who live near the towpath, draw the reader in to a murky world where things – and people – are rarely what they seem. The tale is told in three strands which confusingly criss-cross like tributaries of a river, trickling slowly at first then rushing headlong into the final revelation. Words and their meanings are considered throughout, used to shock and unnerve the reader, or elicit sympathy for the plight of the characters; Sarah’s frustration and upset at knowing she is losing her grasp of language is particularly poignant “I know it is a word, you shout. I know it is. I know it is.” The inventive prose paints a sometimes vivid, sometimes indistinct picture of the lives of the unusual protagonists, and the shifting strands of the story make it difficult to distinguish between reality and imagination which only adds to the constant sense of unease that builds until the climax.
Daisy Johnson’s offbeat take on the current trend of modern mythological retellings would not normally have made it onto my ‘to be read’ pile, and if not for the book club I may not have persevered if it had. Trying to work out the myth which shapes the story helps to draw the reader through the sometimes plodding early narrative, and when realisation dawns it brings a whole new depth of appreciation for the skill of the author in keeping the reader guessing, which – along with the inevitability of the conclusion – would be lost without some knowledge of mythology.
This is not a comforting tale with a happy ending, but a story which tackles difficult themes and leaves the reader unsettled long after the final page.
Our next meeting is on Thursday 5 May at 7pm and we’ll be reading Seamus Heaney’s verse translation (in English) of Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6 – a short, beautiful taster of the brilliance of both poet and translator, capturing Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld and Who He Meets Along the Way. Read a review here and let us know if you’d like to join in!