Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA
Novel set in AD 74 in POMPEII
14th May 2021
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper, novel set in AD 74 in Pompeii.
I have been to Pompeii and marvelled at the ruins and remnants of lives lived when it all ended in AD 79 with the eruption of Vesuvius. It is hard sometimes to equate what one sees today with how life was way back then. When I went to Rome I was delighted to discover Alberto Angela’s novel A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome which offers a flavour of daily life amongst the Romans in AD 115. It was fascinating. So I was delighted to explore ancient Pompeii in the capable hands of this author.
This novel, too, is redolent of how life probably was in Pompeii’s heyday. Each chapter in the book has a short opener, sayings and quotes of the time and/or recorded graffiti both indoors and outdoors – it was common practice to leave messages scrawled on walls for others to read, both as generalisations, announcements and personal notes to a specific person.
This is the story of Amara who grew up in a well-healed household in Greece. Her father died leaving her mother and her impecunious and thus she was sold into slavery, a hugely common event for people without means. She ends up at the notorious brothel in the city, The Wolf Den, where she has to service customers. This is as much about the dynamics between the women in the house, the claustrophobic surroundings, choked with smoke from the oil candles, as it is about her personal life in the den and her determination to break out if she possibly can. The perpetual gloaming in the interiors adds a really palpable backdrop to the narrative and is such a stark contrast to the heat and sunshine, for the most part, on the streets beyond.
Felix owns and runs the brothel and he is inevitably a tricky character. It is worth staying in his good books and Amara has worked this out. She gradually formulates a plan to move into the higher social echelons, by calling on her musical skill set, learnt as a young woman at home. She meets Pliny The Elder, the Admiral of the Fleet, who, we know from the history books, 5 years later experienced the eruption of Vesuvius, which of course decimated the city, leaving the ruins that are still being excavated to this day (the most recent discovery is a ceremonial chariot with the imprint of ropes).
The goings-on at the brothel are only lightly detailed and the reader discovers a good deal about the rituals, food and wine laced with honey. You can almost hear the chatter of the characters on the streets, feel the sun burning down and imbibe the atmosphere behind the large wooden doors of splendid villas. The press of people on the teeming streets as they go about their day, visit the games, eat out and go grocery shopping all seems like an anathema given our current situation in Covid times and the edict, for now, not to mingle in large groups.
This is certainly a novel to pick up if you intend to head for Pompeii one of these days.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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