It’s always a tricky moment for me when a writer approaches me to review their book. I’ve learnt that the best policy is to politely say no: this blog is all about recommendations which means a good deal of agonising if I don’t like a book whose author has made themselves known to me. However, flush with the success of reviewing Elizabeth Baines’ excellent short story collection, Used to Be, after she emailed me, I agreed to take a look at Christine Whittemore’s Inscription. In it she imagines the life of Flavia Domitilla, exiled to the island of Ponza in the first century A.D., about whom, it seems, legends are legion.
A specialist in interpreting ancient texts, Aubrey has been asked by a colleague to help prepare a translation of a codex he has discovered relating to Flavia Domitilla. He’s keen to keep it under wraps until the work is complete, eager to lay claim to this great find. When her colleague dies some way into the project, Aubrey becomes determined to finish it, entranced with this story written by Marina, a British scribe whose Roman lover has cast her aside and who has found employment with the orphaned Tilla’s family. When they come under suspicion of espousing Christianity, Tilla’s uncle is slaughtered and her aunt exiled. Tilla and Marina find themselves banished to the island of Ponza. At first Marina is resentful of Tilla whose actions appear to have brought this upon them but it becomes apparent that religion is not the sole reason the family has been punished: Tilla is pregnant with the emperor’s child. Woven through Marina’s diary entries is Aubrey’s own story which comes to mirror Tilla’s as we learn why she was forced to give up her doctorate and why she chose to leave Britain for America.
Whittemore manages the balance between her two narrative strands well, unfolding the stories of Marina, Tilla and Aubrey almost two millennia apart but still with common threads. Marina’s diary with its vividly evocative descriptions of the hot Ponza summer and her developing friendship with Tilla had me engrossed. There’s a particularly lyrical passage beginning ‘Let me sing the praises of the codex book’ which includes the lovely image: ‘sheet upon sheet like filo pastry; a book like baklava’. Aubrey’s story is the least successful of the two for me, becoming a little overloaded with erudition towards the end of the novel. That said, it taught me about a period I know little or nothing about and made me want to visit the island of Ponza. Well worth reading for me then, much to my relief.