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Ludicrous though this may seem, I am still working through my 2011 book reviews. So here's a review of a book I read a year ago. Yay!

I bought this after reading an enthusiastic review of it on nwhyte's journal, and was glad I had done so. It tells the lively, funny and yet also tragic tale of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrant parents living in Roman London at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus. After living a child's life of relative freedom amongst a rich tapestry of characters on the city's back-streets, she is suddenly married off to a wealthy senator at the age of only eleven - a triumph of social mobility as far as her parents are concerned, but a hard sentence for her. Though she makes the best of the opportunities opened up by her new husband's wealth, and especially the chance to learn how to write poetry, she is expected to stay chastely within the house, even while he is away for months on end in Rome, and of course to be sexually available to him when he is at home - something which she believes destroyed her fertility because it happened when she was still so young. Then one day the emperor comes to town. He notices Zuleika at the theatre, she is drawn to this powerful, masculine figure from what seems to be another world, and she becomes his mistress. But the rollicking wave of their affair comes crashing to a close when Severus dies in York, Zuleika's husband returns home and the next thing she knows her two Caledonian slaves (whom she had refused to set free) have betrayed her secret to him. The story ends slowly and painfully as she discovers too late that he has poisoned her food, and she dies with what dignity she can muster, still aged only eighteen.

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading about the fact that the book is written entirely in verse, but I didn't need to be. This isn't the dull, pretentious poetry of school anthologies, but lively rhythmic stanzas which rattle along, sparkling with wit and infused with Evaristo's love of language and detail. A fairly typical extract runs thus:

"I couldn't get the most powerful man on earth

out of my mind. Nor could the town.
It was bursting with emperana: gossip-mongers

were pouring into the doctors with lock-jaw,
every social climber had their ladder out,

debutantes were doing new frocks and facials,
and every well-to-do matrona was assessing

the boobs and pubes of all eligible daughters
aged ten years upwards.

The town walked with a straight and proud back,
for not since Hadrian built the wall up north

had an emperor deigned to come west.
The city was no longer a minor

provincial backwater but could claim the label
Urbanus. Heartland of Imperium"

That gives a pretty good idea of how Evaristo captures the feeling of a multi-ethnic empire, blending loan-words from Latin, cod-Latin and several other European languages into Zuleika's English, which itself expresses her unique blend of a street-urchin upbringing and the education which her husband has paid for. The balance varies from character to character, so that Zuleika's Sudanese parents speak with a more obviously exotic accent than she does, her bar-keeper friend Venus is a cheerful cockney who calls her 'ducky', and even the emperor himself uses the halting African accent which the Historia Augusta claims he retained into old age. And modern London is all part of the mix, with it night-life, its people and its place-names recognisable amongst the dinner-parties, amphitheatres and atria of the Roman city. It works well - not over-done or obscuring the differences between the two cultures, but helping to bridge the gulf between present and past, and revealing the cultural differences between the Romans and us all the more strongly for putting them alongside the similarities.

Evaristo wrote this book during a period as writer-in-residence at the Museum of London, and it's clear from the funeral instructions which Zuleika delivers to her life-long friend Alba as she dies that her character was inspired by the occupant of the lavish Spitalfields burial found in 1999. Actually this was recognised pretty much from the start as belonging to the early fourth century AD, rather than the early third when Evaristo's story is set, and DNA testing has also revealed that the Spitalfield lady's ethnic background was probably Spanish rather than Sudanese. But the third-century setting allows Evaristo to bring Zuleika, such a characteristic product of the Roman empire's capacity for enabling ethnic mingling and social mobility while still perpetuating huge social inequalities, face to face with the emperor at the centre of it (himself a product of those same systems), in a way that a fourth-century setting would not. And if the Spitalfields lady herself was not actually an African immigrant who had achieved high social status, then the Ivory Bangle lady from York shows that she had contemporaries on these isles who were.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Roman history, the city of London, well-developed female characters and / or deftly deployed language.

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