Monday, March 10, 2008

A Pharaoh Reborn

It's not easy to take on a well-known historical figure. Some are so familiar to readers - and often so over-written - it would seem there's nothing new anyone can say about them. In some cases, new books about such figures rely on subtle - and not so subtle! - shifts in the telling or reinterpret events through another's eyes, the "witness to history" point of view. In others, such as Karen Essex's KLEOPATRA and PHARAOH, new life is breathed into the story itself.
I've been a fan of Ms Essex's since I reviewed her third novel LEONARDO'S SWANS for the Historical Novel Society, yet when I came across used copies of her debut as a fiction writer, a two-volume set about arguably Egypt's most famous queen, I must admit I hesitated. I love historical fiction set in ancient Egypt; but I've read several novels on Cleopatra (including Margaret George's epic) and wasn't sure I cared to read another. I mean, how much more is there to know? The headdress, the grandeur, the asp: she's practically a cliche.
Fortunately, my ignorance didn't prevail over my insatiable curiosity and need to own every historical novel ever published. I bought both volumes in Ms Essex's series - KLEOPATRA and PHARAOH -and started the first one in the evening after dinner. By midnight, I had to tear myself away to brush my teeth and go to bed. And still, despite the fact that I had to work in the morning, I read for another half-hour. I finished the first volume in a week and couldn't sink my teeth into the second one fast enough. I carried these books with me everywhere. I missed a bus stop. I stole time at work to read. I didn't finish my website. I was obsessed.
Ms Essex is a marvelous writer by any standard. Her prose is luminous and precise; she structures her sentences with consummate style and her wit fits her subject matter perfectly. There were lines in these books I read over and over, simply for their beauty, such as the opening line to KLEOPATRA: "There is something about the air in Alexandria. It is said the sea-god Poseidon, who lived near the Isle of Pharos, blew a divine whisper over the town." Now, when a book starts like that, I'm all yours.
KLEOPATRA (spelled the way she herself did, according to her Greek origins) tells the story of Kleopatra's childhood to the time she inherits her throne. Her relationship with her eccentric father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and her ruthless siblings; her fascination with Rome and keen awareness of her blood ties to Alexander the Great and to Egypt, as well as her awakening to the dangers and euphorias of power are gorgeously rendered. Even more importantly, this is a Kleopatra we haven't met. Not the adventuress, the siren, the scheming manipulative seductress - roles she's been forced into by later historians; roles so often allotted to women in history and, to this day, still perpetuated by even our allegedly enlightened society. No, here she is keenly observant, cunning, vital, bold, curious and handsome - but not beautiful: an intelligent, often narcissistic princess who learns the price she must pay for survival. The brutality of court life is not glossed over or exaggerated; it's simply there, a fact, sometimes swift and shockingly cruel. The pleasures of court life are depicted with heady aromatic sensousness and an erudite knowledge of the pagan glories that fueled the ancient world; as Kleopatra matures into the extraordinary woman she will become, we mature with her.
In PHARAOH, the story becomes more familiar as Kleopatra forges her alliances with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and grows all too intimate with the chaotic savagery and hypocritical refinements of Rome. Yet again, the unexpected reigns: Caesar is world-weary and set apart by his divine attributes, even as he recognizes Rome's unworthiness. Marc Antony, on the other hand, is an eager Herculean boy - pummeling his way through life with a meaty grin and ultimately fragile self-worth. As she binds herself, and the future of Egypt, to these very different men, Kleopatra herself evolves into an astute ruler whose one terrifying caveat is her dependence on the very civilization that seeks her downfall. Her myth, her courage, her lust, her mistakes: these are all here, too, portrayed with sensibility and an astonishing lack of sentimentality.
In this era, when the history is so often downplayed, oversimplified, distorted or romanticized to suit the fiction, these novels are, in my opinion, sublime examples of what a writer dedicated to authenticity can achieve, even with a character as maligned and exploited as Egypt's last pharoah. Ms Essex's new novel STEALING ATHENA will be released June 17. I can't wait.


Daphne said...

Wow, those sound really good. I think I"ll add them to my list! Thanks for mentioning them.

C.W. Gortner said...

Yes, they're excellent. I found them to be the best novels I've read thus far on Kleopatra. Hope you enjoy them!