This book has been reviewed as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge
I’m a sucker for well written stories set in ancient Rome or Greece, having grown up on a diet of Mary Renault and Steven Saylor. So when I went looking for my inaugural eBook to read on my shiny new Sony eReader and found Australian writer Elizabeth Storr’s book The Wedding Shroud it was an obvious choice.
Once I began to read I found it hard to put down, always a good sign. It’s the story of Caecilia, a Roman girl married off to an Etruscan noble as part of a treaty between the two nations. Etruria lay to the north of Rome and times being what they were, these two were always warring and in conflict. Using marriage to seal a peace treaty and cement alliances was a common practice both in the ancient world and the relatively recent past. In ancient Rome the woman had no say, she was the property of her male relatives and the more patrician she was the less say she had in whom she married. So what was it like to be 18, from the sober and puritanical world of Republican Rome and married off to a 40 year old, brawny, hard-drinking, hard-fighting Etruscan warlord who was still pining over the loss of his first wife? Pretty bleak one would imagine.
Caecilia does her best to fit in with the Etruscans although she finds their sensual world quite shocking – a little like a good English vicar’s daughter from the 1890’s would find the shenanigans of the Paris aristocracy. Ancient Roman women from Caecilia’s class had to submit, take no pleasure from sex, be pious, bear children and stay out of sight, so she finds it all a bit scandalous, along with the more colourful aspects of the Etruscan religions and cults, and, in particular, the male with male sexual activities that the Etruscans – as with most of the ancient world – accepted as part of the natural growth of boy to man.
But she’s young, adaptable and it turns out that her new husband, while distant and preoccupied is kind, but best of all, he’s a dab hand in the conjugal bed. Caecilia gets a taste for her Etruscan husband’s attentions and comes to resent his preoccupation with his dead wife. We don’t really get a good idea of his emotional life and thus some of his actions are hard to fathom. Some of his marriage back story is revealed toward the end which helps to explain his actions, but it’s a bit frustrating, in a similar manner to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. You want to shout at them ‘just talk to each other!’ but as we all know, talking to one’s beloved isn’t always productive or even possible.
The other book I’m reading at the moment is Persian Fire by Tom Holland. Holland is a master of narrative ancient history, his first book Rubicon, a history of the last days of the Roman Republic, is utterly compelling reading. Persian Fire is the story of the Greek Persian wars, and again it’s top notch history, but it’s man stuff. Battles and power bids are interesting but you do wonder where all the women are in this world. Well, I know of course, cooped up at home with children or enslaved or working as prostitutes, the same old story.
Holland describes how King Cyrus of the Persians married his two daughters to his two sons so the line of divine kingship would be unquestioned. I know the two women would be deeply acculturated and accept this as the norm, but novels like The Wedding Shroud give us a glimpse of how it might have been for these ancient women, how they made their way in a man’s world where they were no more than possessions to be traded, defined by which male they were related to and kept away from anything that could empower them.
I think The Wedding Shroud could be structurally a little tighter in parts, and Caecilia’s continual inner whingeing about how the Etruscans aren’t like the Romans can get a bit tiresome. I wanted to point out a few things to her – she got a good deal with her arranged marriage, a sexually exciting, wealthy, loving, kind man, a beaut palace with gardens and beautiful clothes, the freedom to converse with men and be listened to, the opportunity to administrate her husband’s large estate, and best of all, the possibility of running a business employing artisans and exporting their ceramics. What more could a girl want?
But of course, without conflict there is no story and Caecilia is conflicted within, her stern Roman values revolted by the swinging Etruscans. I know which camp I’d be in given a choice. But she wasn’t given a choice, and how she deals with what she is forced into makes the book an engrossing read, light yet well written, evocative – which is important in an historical novel – bringing the culture of the mysterious Etruscans to life. Love, duty, drugs, religion, war, peace, mothers-in-law and gossiping slaves; it’s all there in The Wedding Shroud. I’m glad to read that there will be a sequel to Caecilia’s story, (it does end in a manner that demands a sequel), and hopefully there will be more novels set in the ancient world by Elizabeth Storrs.
I found The Wedding Shroud in the eBook Fiction Pick’s section of Pages and Pages website. An independent bookseller, who, along with many other Australian independent booksellers are selling eBooks as well as paper books – so we don’t have to buy our books from overseas – a great new step forward for Australian bookselling. One of the advantages of this new set up is the service. Being unable to untangle a minor glitch with my eReader I had great support and only a phone call away.
Sony also offers excellent telephone service and backup. This is hugely important to me. When I have a problem with an MP3 player, a phone, a program, whatever, I don’t want to go wading through forums to find the answer, I have more important things to do and no time to do them in. I want someone who can digest the complex technical information and give me the solution quickly.
I didn’t think I’d enjoy reading from a screen but I did, although one feature of this new eBook experience I found hard to fathom was the number of mistakes and errors in the text. If it was a paper book I’d say the typesetter was drunk and fell on the print button on his way to the loo after doing a very shoddy job. Words running together, words split up randomly, words repeated, paragraphs repeated, numbers appearing for no apparent reason – all very disconcerting. It’s a DRM ePub file and I’m reading it on a Sony eReader, all standard equipment, and I can only guess that someone did a sloppy job at the formatting stage.
It is a shame and I’d be annoyed if my books were released in such a shabby manner, (I haven’t read my own books on an eReader). Authors and editors go to enormous lengths to get everything right, everything, and to be let down at the print stage is well, heartbreaking, and my sympathy goes to Elizabeth Storrs. I hope Murdoch Books will sort it out because it’s a good book and deserves to be as error free as possible.
Since reviewing The Wedding Shroud on this blog on January 8 Murdoch Books have pulled the corrupt file from both Amazon Kindle and from Pages and Pages Ebookshop and replaced them with a beautifully formatted file. So have confidence, if you’d like to buy this as an ebook, go ahead, you’ll find it all smooth and lovely!