Review of Inscription, a novel by Christine Whittemore

Inscription by Christine Whittemore
Sowilo Press, 2015
Winner of the Eludia Award

I’ve taken some time reading Christine Whittemore’s Eludia Award novel, Inscription, because I have read it twice.  I often do this.  I like to read a good novel once rather quickly, moving right ahead, to get an overview of the whole story (lingering a bit here and there, of course, over choice passages). On my second reading, I read much more slowly, savoring description, character development and just, in general, the felicities of the writing. 

This reading technique worked very well for me when reading this rich tapestry of a book.  Whittemore is an excellent writer, fully in control of all her material, writing that lets the reader fully and sympathetically identify with characters such as the main character, Marina, a scribe who is, unusually for the 1st century, a woman, or the other main character, Aubrey, a contemporary woman.

The basic format of the book weaves together the two women and the two time periods in which they live. Aubrey, a specialist in ancient manuscripts, happens upon a 1st century Latin manuscript written by Marina, originally from Brittania, during her time in exile on Ponza, an Italian island, reflecting on her life in Rome as well as her life in exile. As Aubrey translates the material, her commentary also becomes commentary on her own life, which she writes between the lines of her translation. Gradually the reader becomes aware of the affinities the two women share in the loneliness and consolations of their own lives. The strands that bind them over the centuries wind ever closer.

It sounds very complicated, but somehow, being drawn into these two lives, makes it easier for us to understand life in the 1st century world.  The complexities of Roman life, especially for women, are easier to understand when we have learned to care for characters like Marina, who was scribe to Lady Flavius Domitilla, the emperor’s niece, whose own niece Tilla tried to save from exile on the island of Pandateria, only to be sent into exile herself, on the small island of Ponza, accompanied by Marina.

I found myself very involved in the precarious lives of these women.  Aubrey, who changed her own name and thus removed herself from easy research by her unknown descendants, by the end of this book stepped into history.  These lives all seem very complicated but when we stop to think about our own lives, we realize this complexity is the human experience. Back in the day, even Pontius Pilate famously said, “What is truth?”

 I think there is a very good possibility that, when some time has passed, I may read Inscription again.  It’s that good, leading us skillfully through the complexities of 1st century life, religion, and politics. Wonderfully symmetrical and satisfying ending but I won’t be a spoiler.  You’ll have to find out for yourself and you will be very happy you did so.

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