Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Sirens of Surrentum


The moment when Buffy the Vampire the Slayer changed from a good show into a great one was 'Innocence' - the episode where, having slept with Buffy and experienced a moment of perfect happiness, Angel loses his soul, dons the Black Leather Pants of Evil and, well, becomes evil. There's a scene towards the end of the episode in which Buffy's blissfully ignorent mother, Joyce, asks Buffy what she did for her birthday and Buffy replies sadly, 'I got older'. It's a beautiful, bittersweet moment that neatly sums up everything the viewer has just been through over the past two episodes. The Sirens of Surrentum is to the Roman Mysteries series as 'Innocence' is to Buffy - it is the moment where Flavia Gemina who, being a Roman girl, has to grow up rather faster than Buffy, learns some things she maybe didn't want to know about men and women and gets older.

Minus the sex and evil vampires, obviously. (Though I do love 'very kissing' as a child-proof description of sex).

As you'll have gathered, this is definitely a book for older readers of the Roman Mysteries series. I understand from my teacher friends that kids 'do' the Romans at Key Stage 2 - which I think is 8-9 year olds, or possibly 7-8 year olds - in the UK at the moment, which would be the perfect age for them to pick up The Secrets of Vesuvius or The Pirates of Pompeii. By the time they work their way up to The Sirens of Surrentum they should be that wee bit older and starting to be interested in the opposite sex, rather than running away from them because they have nits. (This is what we used to do in my primary school). This is probably also one for the girls, though there is plenty of poison and wild boar hunts to keep the boys occupied too - but really, what the book captures perfectly is what it feels like to be an eleven-year-old girl, and the minefield that is trying to understand adult relationships at that age.

This is something which is much more complicated for Roman girls, of course, because at eleven they are nearly old enough to get married and certainly old enough to be engaged. Not so for boys, who marry much later, though Jonathan and, especially, Tranquillus are clearly thinking about it already. But for Flavia, Pulchra and Nubia, the question of romantic relationships is not just something they can wonder about idly for fun, as it was for my generation, but an urgent problem.

I think my favourite aspect of the book, though, was actually something that reminded me of my MA year rather than the last year or two of primary school. Here's an insight into the workings of my brain for you all: I have studied both Lucan and Suetonius at some length, and Lucan was the subject of my MA dissertation. It took me ages - I won't even admit to you how long - to realise that 'Tranquillus', Flavia's betrothed is, in fact, Suetonius Tranquillus, one of my favourite ancient authors. It was only when he said he wanted to be a biographer that the penny dropped. On the other hand, a very brief mention of the Latin word 'nefas', which refers to a crime or sin of enormous proportions carrying with it an element of religious pollution, immediately had me primed for a reference to Lucan. (I didn't remember his wife's name, so I didn't work out the exact connection, but you say 'nefas', I think 'Lucan').

I'm not sure I should send kids running off to read Lucan, but for anyone with a strong stomach, his Civil War is absolutely brilliant. I focussed on the necromancy scene, which features Erichtho, one of the nastiest witches in literature.

My other favourite part (how many is that now?!) is Flavia's speech on the subject of suicide, which I won't spoil by quoting here. It's beautiful. (It also reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I think that might be my obsession with Buffy talking). And I will make some attempt to redeem my powers of deduction by saying that, once I realised Polla actually was being poisoned and not just suffering from a debilitating disease, I worked out the solution to the mystery myself.

Odysseus and the Sirens. I love this vase. See also the blog's current background!

The children, as good Romans, observe that poison is considered to be the resort of women and cowards, and refer to a few famous cases - I absolutely loved the use of figs on the tree that are pre-poisoned, which took my right back to I, Claudius, and I loved seeing Suetonius gather information for his most famous work. I was a bit horrified at Locusta's actions though, and almost - almost - sympathised with Felix over his response. I liked the lists of various poisons and their antidotes, which I will carry with me when I watch or read Agatha Christies in future, as Christie often uses the symptoms and/or antidotes of poison as vital clues.

There were some nice introductions to ancient philosophy here as well. They were necessarily over-simplified, of course, partly to fit the plot and partly for space and comprehension value, but the characters themselves explained that they were simplifying things, so that's fine. It was a shame that Platonism had to be missed out, but certainly Stoicism and Epicureanism were the big names at this time and the easiest to place at polar opposites to each other. (No room for the Pythagoreans and their beans, but that can't be helped!). It will be fun for any readers with a passing knowledge of Christianity to spot Philodemus' affiliation, and the way philosophy was discussed and handled in general was nicely done. Most importantly, there was an emphasis on philosophy as relating to moral character and life choices more than religion, which is more of a shared experience for everyone who isn't Jewish or Christian, which is an aspect of the ancient world far too often ignored by modern writers desperate to make some kind of point relating to their views on religion (good or bad!)

It's a shame Flavia can't marry Suetonius, as he seems a good sort, despite his obsession with naked women (he's just an early developer!) and I seem to remember that he has rather a lot longer to live than Flaccus, who look set to be her ultimate partner. Also, really, I'd worry about someone whose name is 'Flaccus' (it's just a reference to his floppy hair, kids!). Flaccus does seem to be the sanest person around, but I sort of hope it wasn't actually him who snitched on Flavia and Suetonius, as that was rather mean. Still, we can start to see what the future might hold for Flavia and Jonanthan (who should remove Pulchra from her parents as soon as possible I think!), though it remains more uncertain for Nubia, who once again functioned as the voice of reason and experience throughout, and Lupus, who's still a bit too young!

View from near Sorrento (Surrentum) across the Bay of Naples, towards Vesuvius

5 comments:

  1. I tried to post a comment earlier but it wouldn't work. Hopefully it goes through this time.

    First of all, I'd like to say I've enjoyed your reviews.

    Secondly, if I might make a suggestion, I would read any of the Roman Mysteries books you've skipped in published order, starting with Thieves, then Dolphins, and then Enemies.

    Finally, starting with Slavegirl, the books enter their concluding story arcs, and it is especially important that you don't skip any of the last several books so that you know what is going on and you avoid spoilers.

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  2. Thanks! :)

    I will make sure I read the rest in order. I've picked up most of Dolphins and Enemies from the TV, though there are significant differences, especially to Enemies. I think Thieves is probably the biggest gap in my knowledge so far as I've never actually read how they all got together! I want to read Secrets at some point too, can't get enough Pliny the Elder! I'll probably come back to those later, though, as I've got all the rest and am keen to read them through.

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  3. The TV Dolphins is probably the closest in plot to the book, but the book goes into a lot more background and characterization for Lupus and his uncle.

    Secrets has an entire subplot that the TV cut out, and follows the historical account of Pliny the Elder's final actions and death a bit more closely.

    Enemies of Jupitar is very different.

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  4. This is such a juicy review, Juliette---brilliant digressions all over the place that enrich the reader and fill in backstory without spoiling things. Caroline's writing is so clever and spot-on for her target audience and you have nailed its appeal. Kudos to both of you---

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  5. Thanks Vicki! Am looking forward to the rest of the Roman Mysteries - and also enjoying How to Mellify a Corpse, which I'm working my way through at the moment! :)

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