by Melanie McDonald
Seriously Good Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Novellas are problematic little buggers, aren't they? Book buyers are less likely to purchase something they know they are going to get through in one sitting, especially if they can buy a full-length novel for a similar price. Publishers are wary of them because it is more cost-efficient to print full-length novels. Literary agents aren't interested in them, knowing the big publishers demand longer works of fiction in which to invest their money. Where does that leave the authors who write novellas?
Fortunately for Melanie McDonald, her debut novella “Eromenos” was picked up by Seriously Good Books, a small press who specialise in historical fiction and is due to be released early 2011. “Eromenos” is set in the Roman Empire of the second century AD and tells the story of Antinous of Bithynia, a teenage boy of exceptional beauty, and his experiences as a consort of the Emperor Hadrian. I'm sure there are a few readers out there staring in disbelief at that last sentence. “Eh? What? Hadrian? As in the wall-building Hadrian? He had a [gasp] teenage boyfriend?” Relationships between adolescent boys and older men were actually very common in Ancient Greek and Roman society. The relationship was born partly out of a need for masculine companionship but also out of sexual attraction. They'd hang out together during the day, go hunting or discuss philosophy or whatever over dinner but behind closed doors they'd be at it like knives.
You've probably guessed by now that this is a novella which is unlikely to appeal to everyone. Those of a homophobic inclination will doubtless be outraged by a number of scenes and the relationship between Antinous and the Emperor is also likely to unsettle more conservative readers. However, one has to take this relationship within the context of Roman society where it was a commonplace occurrence for a member of the upper classes to take an eromenos (beloved boy) under his wing and tutor him in the ways of the world.
McDonald's evocation of the Ancient World is truly masterful. The long list of sources at the end of the book shows that she did a scholarly amount of reading whilst researching the book and she assimilates the historical details of the story into her narrative without sacrificing the pace or characterisation. Indeed, whilst the vivid recreation of Imperial Rome is impressive enough, it is McDonald's intelligent and sensitive characterisation that carries the story along. Antinous is a complex character, torn between his rigid sense of duty to the Emperor and his own fiery Greek spirit. Though his relationship with Hadrian empowers him politically and socially, Antinous is painfully aware of the fact that his status as Hadrian's consort is transient and as his youthful looks begin to mature, he will find himself cast aside for a younger man. Travelling the Empire as part of the Emperor's retinue, Antinous meets the greatest minds, philosophers and priests of the age. The climax of the story comes as he resolves to commit suicide, knowing that Hadrian will deify him. Such a tragic end, he explains, is far more preferable to the inevitable rejection and loss of status that will follow.
The romance between a teenage boy and a grown man is never going to be an easy thing to capture convincingly and sympathetically within the pages of a book. Melanie McDonald has achieved this and done it with both beauty and subtlety. “Eromenos” may be a short read but it carries the emotional weight of a novel two or three times its size. Coupled with a rigorous attention to historical accuracy and a vivid recreation of Roman society in the second century AD, this novella is a most impressive little book.
Hereward L.M. Proops