One of the things I love most about belonging to a book group is the way in which it forces me to read novels that I would otherwise never have even so much as picked up. The Wednesday Group is made up of readers of such differing tastes that inevitably during the course of the year something completely out of my normal ken will turn up. This year it has been Bernadine Evaristo’s verse novel, The Emperor’s Babe.
I’m no great reader of poetry, so even the thought of a complete story told in verse was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat, but from the moment I began this I was completely hooked and if it had been practical I could have happily finished it in one sitting – which would have been a shame, because although it is on the surface a very light read, there is actually a lot going on here that needs some thinking about.
The book is set in the Londinium of 211 AD and our heroine is the feisty Zuleika, daughter of Sudanese immigrants made good. When we first meet her she is eleven and roaming the streets with her friends Alba and the cross-dressing Venus. If you know Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials think Lyra and you’ll have the right idea. But, as she says
One minute it’s hopscotch in bare feet,
next you’re four foot up in a sedan in case
your pink stockings get dirty. No one
prepared me for marriage.
Zuleika is a beauty and at eleven she is sold off to Felix, a high Roman official, to be his wife. From the freedom of the streets Zuleika’s world narrows down to the confines of Felix’s Londinium villa and sumptuous though it may be it is still a prison;
this becomes my world, to adjust
to married life, I am not let out, he says
he is too selfish to share his new bride
Eleven, and although it is spelt out indirectly, clearly far too young in every respect for marriage.
Martuis: doctor recommends months
of recuperation each time his sewing
Given the horrendous cases we have seen in the UK this past week of child grooming, forget 211 AD, this is all too relevant to today.
However, the writing refuses to allow you to dwell on the harsher side of Zuleika’s life for very long. With Felix out of the country here is Venus preparing for an evening of poetry and orgy.
Venus gushed over, all towering bouffant
and frou-frou orange gown.
Ain’t never MC’d a recitatio before, Zee
only the Alternative Miss Londinium
at the Forum and drag nights at the club.
I’m so excited!
And then Zuleika catches the eye of the Emperor, the Libyan, Severius and although for a time she is happier than she has ever been, from that moment it is downhill all the way. You can see the inevitable rising inexorably before you as the verse pulls you forward to a conclusion you desperately don’t want to reach. Along the way though, you’ll still find yourself smiling, especially as you recognise some of the parodies that Evaristo slips in throughout the text.
He suddenly turned his back to me,
curled into a tight ball, a soft, maudlin voice
emerged, almost melodramatic:
‘If I should die, think only this of me, Zuleika,
there’s a corner somewhere deep
in Caledonia that is forever Libya.’
Or my own personal favourite, exclaimed at a moment of high passion
vidi, vici, veni
Think about it.
Fun though this book is, it does have a much more serious side. As I’ve indicated, it has to be read as much in the light of Twenty-First Century London as in that of the time in which it is set and in particular it has to be read in the light of the search for identity of many second generation immigrants. Here is the poem that Zuleika reads at that poetry cum orgy evening, unfortunately at a point when most of the guests are too drunk to appreciate it. It is called Identity Crisis: Who is she? This, I think, says it all.
Am I the original Nubian princess
From Mother Africa?
Does the Nile run through my blood
In this materfutuo urban jungle
Do I feel a sense of lack
Because I am swarthy?
Or am I just a groovy chick
Living in the lap of luxury?
Am I a slave or a slave-owner?
Am I a Londinio or a Nubian?
Will my children be Roman or Nubinettes?
Were my parents vassals or pharaohs?
And who gives a damn?
Please read this book. You won’t regret it.