18 May 2010
The Emperor's Babe - Bernardine Evaristo
The Emperor's Babe is the story of Zuleika; she's the daughter of Sudanese immigrants who have moved to Londinium (now called London) years prior to the beginning of the story. It all begins in the early third century when Zuleika, at 11, is married to Felix, a fat Roman merchant three times her age. This is actually not that surprising, since the legal age of marriage for Roman citizen-status girls was twelve years old, but I still think it's really gross that a child be married to a 33 year-old rich Roman (which was considered really old at that time), but hey, that's one of the messed-up things that happened in those times.
Anyways, she is obviously very unhappy in her marriage - I mean, for one thing it was a transaction between her father and Felix, and for another it was sexually messed up. Seriously, she was ELEVEN YEARS OLD, and as she said at one point in the novel, she had "discovered sex before desire". :(
So, unhappy and bored in her passionless marriage, she met a very sexy man who also thought she was very sexy; his name was Septimius Severus. Yep, that Roman emperor who essentially walked all over the Empire (to deal with usurpers and the Scots and the Parthians and such), and founded the Severan dynasty. So, at eighteen, in AD 211, Zuleika was the emperor's mistress for a summer - and as everyone who has studied Roman history knows, Septimius Severus died in Britain during his campaign for Roman expansion into Scotland. So she also had to deal with this heartbreak.
Apart from the historical accuracy (most of the time) that makes this novel really interesting, the characters were also pretty well done and interesting; among others, I really liked the fact that one of Zuleika's best friends, Venus, was actually a trans woman, and that the complicated relationship between slaves and their masters was part of the story. Because seriously, in the Roman times everyone had slaves, and rich people (like Zuleika's husband) were guaranteed to have a ton of them.
Furthermore, another thing that made this novel interesting was the way in which it is presented: at first glance, I thought it was a big poem (and, I'll admit, I was kind of disappointed), but it reads exactly like a regular novel with full paragraphs. To be cynical, I'd say that it was formatted in verse so that it could fill 250 pages - but I find that this format really fit the story well, and permitted it to flow quickly.
Finally, I just really enjoyed the mix of historical accuracy and modern references - for example, everyone wore what they would wear in those times (women wore chitons, men wore togas, etc), but they'd have been designed by famous Romans with names like Valentino, Armani and Gucci. Also, there was a mention of the Emperor's concubine, called Camilla, who was mocked as being no "Helen of Troy", and resembling rather the "Horse of Troy" - British royal family scandals, anyone?
Ok, I'll stop now: I really really really liked this novel. It's set in the Roman Empire (woooot, Roman civilization!), it features characters not usually associated with Great Events in History (woooot, women! Of colour! Or trans!), and it really makes you feel the heartbreak the characters go through (woooot, relating to the characters! Comedy that morphs into drama! Emotion!).