I hope that Elisabeth Storrs has written the sequel to The Wedding Shroud by the time I set off on my next long-haul flight. It’s always difficult to find the right book to while away the long hours: I want something not too arduous for a brain disoriented by lack of sleep and muddled time zones, but I don’t want my mind insulted by inane pap either…
The Wedding Shroud is a well-written historical novel with a twist. It’s set way back in Rome’s ancient past when they were yet to become the most powerful empire of the ancient world. Storrs has recreated the Etruscan city of Veii to tell her story of Caecilia Aemilius, a young Roman girl whose loyalties are put to the test by her marriage to Vel Mastarna, an Etruscan nobleman. He’s twice her age, scarred emotionally and physically - and he smells of pomades that an uber-masculine Roman male would never use - but she has little choice because the marriage has been negotiated as part of a political truce between the two cities.
Like me, Storrs majored in classics and her meticulous research shows in the attention to detail: she uses Caecilia’s dismay at the contrast between staid Roman mores and the sinful ways of the Etruscans to develop a convincing setting. Architecture, details of interiors, dining habits and clothing styles are deftly rendered, and not in a heavy-handed way because the minutiae of daily life is as strange to Caecilia as it is to the reader. She is alternately appalled and captivated by the contrast between what she had known and what she must endure as a pawn married off to seal a treaty. Religious rituals, bathing, and even the way Etruscans gather for meals is different, and the girl is under pressure to adapt if not to provoke hostility in the charged political atmosphere. What compromises her acceptance and her marriage is her fear of abandonment to their licentious ways, clinging not only to her plain Roman clothing and hairstyle but also to the high moral ground.
Like the central character in The Book of Rachel, The Wedding Shroud explores gender roles in the ancient past. Storrs’ novel features none of the dynamic dames we saw in the BBC adaptation of Richard Graves’ I Claudius; her Roman woman are excluded from all forms of public life and are very firmly kept in their place. For Caecilia, whose curiosity and intelligence were already chafing under the expectations of duty and propriety in Rome, the freedoms Etruscan women enjoy are tempting. Her journey of discovery is guided by four very different women: her mother-in-law, a Greek slave-woman, a courtesan and her dead predecessor, a Rebecca-like rival to whose memory Mastarna remains devoted.
But none of her domestic concerns take place in a vacuum. Among her many mistakes is her naïve trust of one who wants to use her in the intricate internal politics of Veii. Veii is one of twelve Etruscan cities in fragile alliance against the threat of Rome’s ambitions on its border. As ever, there are peacemakers and warmongers among the leadership, and that leadership is tightly contested. The plot is so well-constructed that the reader is – like Caecilia – lured into errors of judgement about the future. It’s very well done.
Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past enjoyed it too.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Elisabeth Storrs
Title: The Wedding Shroud
Publisher: Pier 9 (Murdoch Books) 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Pier 9 Murdoch Books.
Fishpond: The Wedding Shroud and major Australian bookstores - and soon to be available as an eBook too.
It doesn’t seem to be available from overseas websites but of course can be ordered from Aussie booksellers.