Review by Lory Widmer-Hess
Ancient Greece and Rome, which formed the foundation of so much in our Western civilization, have been getting a revisionist look lately. A number of novels have explored alternate perspectives on the history and legend of this monumental era, particularly giving voice to the women who were silenced, overlooked, or actively oppressed. It can give one pause to realize that as the foundations of our modern concepts of law, justice, democracy, and freedom were being laid, a very different reality existed for human beings of the female gender, especially for the ones at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It’s a kind of fundamentally split consciousness that we are still wrestling with today, and that can be fruitfully explored through such new stories about old times.
For such an exploration, Elodie Harper’s new novel The Wolf Den draws from a unique source: the remains of Pompeii, which was ironically preserved for future study at a particular moment in time by its volcanic destruction. Specifically, she centers her tale around the town brothel, the “wolf den” of the title, inhabited by the prostitutes who are literally called “she-wolves” in Latin. To a strong sense of physical setting, rooted in the sites that can still be visited today, she adds a number of memorable characters who draw us into their world.
The lives of five “she-wolves” are traced through the course of several months, centering on Amara, an intelligent doctor’s daughter from Attica fallen on hard times. Each one is richly characterized and human, showing the strength of the human core that survives in such difficult circumstances, looking for love and connection, even when sometimes it is cruelly betrayed or cannot be expressed. It’s inevitable that some of the women will fall into despair and be lost, some will be victims of the unjust who reign supreme, but some will rise through their refusal to be defined by the bullies who exploit them. A wide range of human emotions and psychological adaptations to trauma and abuse are explored, and although clearly informed by modern understanding in many ways, this serves to point up what has remained constant throughout history and does not become annoyingly anachronistic.
For those who wonder how it is to read a book based on institutionalized sexual violence, I’m sure it would not be easy for those who are highly sensitive to such content. I found that Harper struck a fine balance between exposing the realities of the women’s lives, and leaving much of the detail respectfully off-stage. She also made marvelous use of the visual evidence left from Pompeii in her descriptions, adding authentic atmosphere that did not scream “historical research” (though it whispered it at times). A brief but crucial appearance by Pliny the Elder is similarly a touch that adds historical weight, without feeling gratuitous.
The Wolf Den is the first of a planned trilogy centering on Pompeii – one can’t help but wonder how Harper will incorporate the looming eruption, and whether any of the characters we’ve met and grown to care about will survive. Until then, I look forward to more visits to the ancient world through her work.
Lory Widmer Hess blogs about life, language, and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle.
Elodie Harper, The Wolf Den (Head of Zeus, 2021). 978-1838933531, 464pp., hardback.
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