Review by Lory Widmer-Hess
The House with the Golden Door returns to the world of Elodie Harper’s acclaimed novel, The Wolf Den, set in first century CE Pompeii. If you haven’t read the first in the series, this review may contain spoilers, so be advised.
Amara is a former prostitute who has managed to escape the town brothel, aka The Wolf Den, and carve out what at first seems a better life for herself, as concubine to a rich young Roman citizen who appreciates her respectable background as a Greek doctor’s daughter. But she finds it hard to separate herself completely from her former brothel friends and their brutal master, Felix; she feels obliged to try to free at least some of them, and thereby becomes entangled with and endebted to him once more. Life with her new “patron” also proves less idyllic than she had expected, as she finds that he, too, has a violent streak and that she has only traded one form of captivity for another. A new love that must remain a dangerous secret impells her toward even more difficult choices, and in the end to taking another journey into the unknown.
In The Wolf Den, the relationships among captive women were the most compelling part of the narrative; in this sequel, with Amara out of the brothel and her best friend, Dido, dead, things shift due to the change in her status, focusing more on her as an individual and bringing out new responsibilities and moral quandaries. Even as Amara struggles with her traumatic memories of enslavement, she becomes something of a pimp herself, having freed her companion Victoria only to be obliged to sell her out along with household slaves to make the money to pay off her sale. She justifies this by telling herself she is not as cruel as Felix, but she also detects that in some ways she is like him, and through a series of ill-advised meetings the tension between them crests to an explosive denoument.
Amara, being only human, is irresistibly pulled to seeking love and companionship, even though this places both her and her loved ones in extreme danger. Born free as she was, it remains hard for her to truly adjust to her powerlessness and to the injustice of a world in which those of greater intelligence and ability may be subjugated by the system. She struggles to rise by the only menas she can: by using her sexual prowess, cultivating more powerful friends, and accumulating money, but can she avoid eroding her moral integrity in the process? She survives, but at the cost of much that is most dear to her.
These novels bring home the evil of enslavement, of treating human beings as objects, and also make clear how deeply bound this evil is into the roots of our civilization. In fact, it’s an extremely late development in our history to attempt to create a society without slaves, and enslavement is a habit we seem to keep falling back into, even if we call it by other names. As with all historical fiction, Harper’s look back into the past is really about now, about how we got to where we are, what remains constant and what slowly changes over time. And it brings up hard and important questions about what is means to be free, and whether we can make manifest the universal right of all human beings to freedom, something that has not yet come to pass.
Beneath the surface of her struggle for survival, Amara is engaged in a battle to comprehend her own motivations and to live with transparency and honesty in a world that demands duplicity. This is the true source of freedom, one that may seem unattainable when there are so many forces ranged against it, and yet the struggle must continue, or a person inwardly dies. Felix appears to be one who has lost the battle, and yet there are hints that even he may have some capacity for redemption, if his human core that was warped by his own trauma and abuse can be recovered. So far, though, it has not come to light, and may never do so; perhaps it can only be a source of destruction. The love-hate relationship between Felix and Amara simmers under the surface throughout the novel, rumbling like a volcano about to erupt.
Meanwhile, unknown to the characters, but anticipated by the reader, the end of their world looms with the actual eruption of Vesuvius, due in a few years time. What, if anything, will they be able to preserve? Where will Amara’s choices lead her? I look forward to finding out when the next book of this compelling trilogy appears.
Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.
Elodie Harper, The House with the Golden Door (Head of Zeus, 2022). 978-1838933579, 400pp., hardback.
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