Shortlisted for Book of the Month
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(contains explicit content and language)
Amara is a prostitute in a brothel in Pompeii. She's a slave and has no choice in her life. As she constantly reflects, she is nothing and she owns nothing. It wasn't always that way, once she was part of a loving family, her father a doctor in Greece, but his death brought poverty and she was sold to one of her father's clients supposedly as a house servant, but became a concubine - a mistress - and was then sold on by the client's wife as a prostitute.
Life isn't all bad, Amara likes the other girls she lives with and they face their difficult life together, making things a little easier for each other; the only family they are likely to ever have, however bizarre.
Amara, however, has never forgotten her previous life, or how she came to be what she is now and she will never do as she's advised and accept her new reality. Things changed once before, they can change again. She just needs to find a patron who will make her free. Finding one is the challenge, one rich enough because Felix, the sociopath brothel owner, won't sell Amara cheaply - she's worth too much.
Despite this being written in the present tense, not my favourite, I didn't notice after a while as the narration flows really well. The characters are well written, the plot well constructed. The story does get a little bogged down in places, but nothing grates, nothing's out of place; some questions are not answered by the end, but, I suppose, some questions just can't be answered because no one knows what the answers are.
I particularly enjoyed how the story is illustrated at the start of each chapter using snippets of graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum and excerpts from Pliny and other writers. Clever, especially the graffiti, weaving this story into the real lives of those who had lived in Pompeii.
The language is modern, there's no attempt to make it sound like they really are ancient Romans; anachronistic, yes, using 'minutes' and 'cafe' among others, but it isn't offensive as the aim is to make the world as accessible to us as it was to them, to be as real and normal, and not other-worldly. There's no sense that the writer really believes that shops that sold ready-made food to eat on the premises really were called cafes or that they were all aware of how long a minute was, it is a means to an end.
If you are sensitive, maybe avoid because there are a lot of uses of the 'F' word to describe the act rather than as an expletive - it's about prostitutes, after all. But if you can overlook this, do, because, they may be whores, as they are so frequently referred to, but they are also real women with feelings, like any woman of any age or era.
I would certainly recommend this as a good, if a little long, read. Amara eases her way in and you can't let her go.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Nicky Galliers