Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs

The Wedding Shroud

Review by Tracy Falbe

Elisabeth Storrs resurrects the lost world of the Etruscans in her masterful novel The Wedding Shroud set in 407 B.C. Long overshadowed by the Romans, the earlier Etruscan culture of ancient Italy is brilliantly revealed through the eyes of the novel's heroine, a young Roman woman named Caecilia. The daughter of an awkward plebian and patrician union, Caecilia is used to seal a peace treaty between Rome and Veii, a nearby Etruscan city. Her scheming male relatives force her to marry Vel Mastarna, a powerful and wealthy Veientane, and Caecilia is carried away to her new home. Veii is only twelve miles from Rome, but it is a world away for Caecilia. The author convincingly illustrates how small an individual's personal world could be in earlier times, especially a girl raised within the confining patriarchy of Rome. Although the ancient Mediterranean world was cosmopolitan and some people were well traveled, most were like Caecilia, who finds herself within an utterly foreign culture a mere dozen miles from her native home.

Once Caecilia arrives in Veii, the informative historical contrasts between Roman and Etruscan cultures are revealed through detail-rich prose. Caecilia has been raised within the austere and outwardly puritan Roman culture that values sacrifice, duty, and war. In Rome, women are nearly cloistered within their homes. They wear plain wool clothes, are forbidden to drink wine, and are not allowed to join the serious conversations of men. With such a background, Caecilia immediately finds Veii to be a constant moral outrage. Men and women mingle. They wear flamboyant and immodest clothes. They eat rich fancy food. Women can drink and debauch at banquets right alongside their men.

But some things are a pleasant surprise for Caecilia in her new household. She is given a slave, Cythergis. Never was such a luxury granted to Caecilia in Rome. And Caecilia is expected to hold audiences with her husband as his tenants and other guests petition him. In Veii, women have status and respect and are allowed to indulge in the luxuries of life. They might even be worthy of a funeral banquet and honorary games, which astounds Caecilia. She welcomes some of the nice things about life in Veii and is gradually tempted by darker forces in a society where most anything goes.

Despite her elevated status, Caecilia is not a truly liberated woman. The differences in female oppression between Romans and Etruscans are a matter of degree. Although Caecilia is free of the mind-numbing denial and drudgery of a Roman matron, she is still the possession of her husband and her paramount purpose is to produce an heir for Mastarna. This fictional study of female status is carefully crafted by Elisabeth Storrs. Delicate comparisons are presented through the characters of Erene, the courtesan, Caecilia, the proper wife, and Cythergis, the slave woman. All three types are dependent on men and under their control. Erene is strictly for pleasure. She is more than a slave but less than a wife. As a wife, Caecilia is allowed sexual pleasure by Etruscan culture with her husband with the great purpose of procreation looming above all. Most miserable is the slave woman Cythergis, who has endured having her children sold. Although Cythergis enjoys men, she hopes to avoid more pregnancies so she can stop breeding slaves. The nuances of the difficult lives of these three ancient women are touchingly revealed.

Complex relationships in The Wedding Shroud are the ships upon which the story flows. Caecilia struggles to adapt to her new and foreign household where Val Mastarna and his brother Artile, a powerful priest, vie for the affection and approval of their mother, Larthia. The adopted son of Mastarna, Tarchon, is also embroiled in an inappropriate sexual relationship with Artile. The priest is a constant source of meddling within the family, and he soon sinks his painted claws into the vulnerable Caecilia and begins to control her with religion and addictive drugs.

The character of Artile serves to educate the reader about the practices and corruptions of ancient religions. His power is great and even the educated elites are swayed by his interpretations of signs, with the notable exception of his brother Mastarna. Although the Etruscan culture has technology and fine artistry, it remains like all ancient cultures steeped in superstition. The imprint of the primitive world remains deep and fresh despite the presence of architecture, music, metallurgy, writing, and mathematics. Animal sacrifice is commonplace with the most horrifying example shown in wild rites that culminate with the tearing up and eating of fawns. And then as part of a funeral rite, a criminal is savagely executed by having a maddened dog set loose on him.

All of this assaults the sensibilities of Caecilia, whose sheltered upbringing as a female among joyless Romans, leaves her reeling with disgust. Amid the carnal abandon of Veii, Caecilia's husband Mastarna represents a rare force of rationality and affection. Frustratingly Caecilia too often rebuffs his attempts to help her adjust. As the reader, I often wanted her to be more accepting of Mastarna because he really was a relatively nice person, but Caecilia's turmoil and many mistakes are understandable. She is young, inexperienced, and alone in an alien culture. This formula usually adds up to poor choices.

I could write another thousand words exploring the subtleties of this novel without giving away any spoilers. Storrs presents a tremendous amount of research in a gripping story with characters that all feel genuine. Her writing has a literary quality packed with artistic descriptions and intelligent metaphors. For example, from page 79: "It was as though she had kicked the top off an ants' nest and found another world of industry and intricacy and purpose foreign to her own, exposing herself also to the danger of being bitten." The whole novel flows like a coastal Mediterranean wind and supports an unfolding narrative with the strong reach of a thick grape vine. I was drawn in completely to the emotional edginess of Caecilia and pined for her to accept her unwanted love of Mastarna. The Wedding Shroud is not purely a psychological journey. Episodes of visceral action punctuate the unfolding drama, like the breathtaking chapter in which Mastarna recklessly wrestles an Olympic champion. I highly recommend The Wedding Shroud to historical fiction readers. Elisabeth Storrs has created a wonderful novel from a willing marriage of her historical research and writing talent. 

The Wedding Shroud is available in the Australian market. Hopefully the publisher will make it available in North America soon.

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