The further I read in Tabula Rosa: a crime novel of the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014) the more ‘Forget it Jacobus, it’s Chinatown’ it got. “I don’t know who to trust,” says Ruso. He’s on a gruelling, desperate solo mission – the consequences for all will be bad enough if he succeeds, never mind failure. ““No? The medic grinned. “Welcome to the border, soldier.”“
Tabula Rasa is the sixth in Ruth Downie‘s sequence of historical crime novels. If the swagger and joie de vivre that were such a feature of earlier volumes is less in evidence it’s no wonder. The dedication spells it out: “To those who wait, not knowing whether news will ever come. With respect.” Ruso and Tilla – Roman husband, British wife – for me the best crime fiction double act going, don’t spend too much time on the same pages in this one.
So, Hadrian’s Wall in construction. The Roman military occupation. If they’ve given up on the tribes to the north and the territory as not being worth the bother, they’re still a threat, and the Brigantians to the south are conflicted among themselves as to the desirability and the ways and means of resistance, fraternization and co-existence. Into this culture clash throw an abducted child (British) and a missing (with rumours of a body being buried in the wall) young man (Roman). Both Tilla and Ruso have a personal interest in the disappearances. It’s an uncomfortable enough time when nothing much is happening, but the ramped-up mutual suspicions, accusations and bitterness threaten danger in every direction.
One of Ruth’s many skills as a writer is an ability to invest her chosen time and territory with our contemporary situation – and vice versa – without it seeming in any way an exercise in box-ticking. This is what it must have felt like, what it feels like. So you’ve got the problems of policing minority communities and the ‘war against terror’ at the forefront here, only turned on their head – the triumphant Romans are the immigrants. And there’s a whiff of Palestine and Guantanamo, and other conflicts closer to home. The possibility of agents provocateurs being at work, secret service shenanigans, espionage, torture, and the use of informants are all touched on the narrative. Paranoia strikes deep. Plus, of course, you’ve got the more mundane (but entertaining, if sometimes perilous) matter of Ruso and Tilla as partners in a mixed marriage, both in the home and out in the wider world. And just as a nod and wink bonus, Ruso the doctor reflecting current A&E and more general perceived NHS woes.
It’s a tense and exciting novel with many shifts of narrative and focus. We suffer a bit, physically and with anguish, and the outcome is never certain. Until it happens, of course. Add to this the background historical knowledge – both Roman and native – that infuses it all (I’m not going to say ‘on display’ because there’s no showboating) and Tabula Rasa is a great read. Ruth writes with intelligence, charm, wit and moral seriousness. And she treats us to an intriguing development near the end. Was it signaled beforehand? I didn’t spot it. No matter, it’s surprisingly satisfying. No spoilers here, but something hugely significant happens to Tilla as things are resolved. Well, two things actually. I’m rather hoping this means the series will continue with the action remaining in Britain for a few books now. I look forward to them, wherever.
Before moving on, here’s a taste or two that might make you investigate the books further. First, the lighter (and not so light) side of living under occupation:
“We here,” the officer announced in very bad British, “to look for man. Soldier man. Him lost. You tell.”
The family showed not a trace of understanding or amusement. She knew most of them would have understood him if he had spoken in his own tongue, but it was a small form of revenge to make him struggle like that: perhaps the only one they could exact without getting themselves into trouble. We do not speak Latin in this house. Perhaps they would share the joke later. Him one ugly man. Him think we as stupid as he is.
There are many fine strands to Ruso and Tilla’s relationship. Their badinage can be delightful and it works subtly, far more effectively than if the redoubtable Tilla had been made into some sort of feminist icon:
“I am not the daughter of Lugh anymore,” she whispered into the empty room. “I am Tilla, Roman citizen, wife of Gaius Petreius Ruso, a man from overseas who is very annoying.”
And finally, a bit more culture clash, and amen to that conclusion:
“Senecio,sir. He’s a farmer. And a poet. My wife knows him. You may have heard about him singing to the trees.”
“Ah. The crazy one.”
“Not crazy, sir.” At least, not before one of his three sons was killed and another stolen. Now, who knew? “He’s just very traditional.”
Ruso was acutely aware of the average officer’s failure to grasp how the locals saw things, which meant they often ended up negotiating with the wrong people. They would not bother with poets. […] “They hold the knowledge of their tribe in their memories,” he explained. “And they put together the latest events in verse. They’re like sort of … announcers and libraries in one. They believe spoken words have great power.”
Denis Theriault‘s The peculiar life of a lonely postman (Hesperus Press, 2014) is a slight (108 pages without the paraphernalia at the back) entertainment, the charm and cleverness of which either gets you or not. It had its moments, I suppose. There’s a twist at the end (and I don’t mean the ridiculous turn of events that coincidentally averts a suicide) which I’ll not give away, save to say it strikes me more like a nightmare out of Edgar Allan Poe nightmare than the serenity I think you’re meant to take from it.
Bilodo, a lonely postman living his life vicariously by steaming open and reading other people’s letters … Come on: a disciplinary offence! But then someone in the reading group remembered Willy Nilly the village postie doing it quite openly in Under Milk Wood ... Anyway, he stumbles into a renku project, a correspondence by haiku, between a japanophile here in Quebec and a young woman in Guadeloupe. This pushes Bilodo (as per billet-doux, as someone else in the reading group spotted: aren’t reading groups grand?) into learning all about haiku and taking his place (after a ‘poetry emergency‘) in the exchange of haiku, which takes a gentle, then steamier, erotic turn (not too corny, actually). When she says she’s coming to Canada he panics and I’ll say no more. I learned a bit about haiku. There’s a sub-plot based around his relationship with his colleague and a waitress for a bit of context, which I thought, if anything, detracted from the whole.
There’s always a problem with books in translation, so I can’t say whether the clumsiness comes from the author or not, though I doubt, for instance, a translator would inject “eyelashes fluttering like the wings of twin butterflies” into the death throes of a road accident victim, and I can’t quite see how Bilodo necessarily “combed the dictionary” when he was looking up a specific word. Who knows what he was doing when “He jubilated in the washroom” on getting a haiku back, his ruse undetected.
On the whole, a Marmite book, then. Some of the reading group really liked it, and I have to admit I took to him counting all the steps up he climbed on the stairs in the blocks of flats on his letter round, and touting himself as a gold medal winner should it ever become an Olympic event. And even I was briefly elated by:
And he, who had never so much as set a toe on a dance floor, dreamt that night that he whirled around merrily with Ségolène in the unlikely, highly diverse setting of a festive town […]. He dreamt that they danced now a frenzied rigadoon on the icy pavement […] now a wild gwoka in the fragrant sultriness …
Much more to my liking was Poppy Adams‘ disturbing first novel, The behaviour of moths (Virago, 2008), the latest excursion of my usual reading group. Pretty much from the start it’s obvious we are dealing here with that perturbing creature the unreliable narrator, but quite how deeply unreliable only becomes clear (or clear-ish – ambiguities hauntingly remain) as things develop.
We start with Ginnie (our narrator) eagerly awaiting the impending return of her younger sister, Vivi, to the crumbling family country house pile. Quite how crumbling is only made explicit later on, with action delivered with wonderful gothic panache. The two have not met for 47 years. Ginnie, following in her father’s footsteps, is a world-class lepidopterist, who has never left home, whereas Vivi has obviously had some sort of life in the big wide world. So it seems we’re set up with the prospect of revelations of glamour, excitement and whatever else from that life – a Kate Atkinson non-Brodie set-up. Such expectation is quickly dispelled in the first of a number of sudden dramatic though never random shifts of focus. (For example: “Many years later, when Vivi and I were expelled from Lady Mary’s.”) We’re never told why Vivi has come home, can never really take for granted her bland attestation that it’s time for them to see out their final years together. But that quickly becomes neither here nor there.
Had Vivien really come home to torment me, to point out that I had been living in the wrong history, to push me into the correct scene of the correct painting?
Something crucial happens between the two of them in the 1950s, maybe an accident, when they are children, and then later when they are young women (a couple of things actually), that culminate in Vivi breaking off all contact. This is a dysfunctional family that only gets worse with age and the onset of physical (non-sexual) abuse and alcoholism. There is something not right with Ginnie – I’m no expert, and it’s not made explicit, but it’s probably too simple to just cite the autism spectrum – but it doesn’t stop her becoming a world expert on moths.
Things get interesting here; we learn a lot about moths and their study; for me this did not get in the way, while others demurred. Upstairs in the house there is outstanding mounted moth mausoleum; three generations of lepidoptery have seen the shift from eccentric Victorian collector with a net on a sticks, every variation pinned in cabinets, to serious science – spectroscopy, chemical triggers, genetics, the study of evolution. Clive, their father, hates the public lectures he has to give because he always ends up arguing – a nice comic interlude – with rural vicars about self-consciousness and free will; when it comes to moth behaviour (and indeed, by extension, all behaviour) he’s a reductionist – it’s all down to chemical reactions in the brain. Maybe so with some of the action in the novel too. As I say, it’s disturbing. As Ginnie says, near the end:
I like to think that, for once, I am in control of my actions, but I also like to know that I am not. […] … I am the puppet of myself.
This is a beautifully constructed novel, full of odd, terrible, and occasionally, tender turns; there is comedy too in the mundane. Poppy Adams is wonderfully in control of her material. Her (Ginnie’s) language is fluid and occasionally nicely quirky: “her hair angry”; “I put two of the new pyramid-style teabags into [the] pot”; the capitalisation of “The Hand That Cupped My Bottom”.
I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the plot or detailed much here. There is a bizarre and moving episode of tragic surrogate motherhood. Your allegiances move about and there is no clear resolution of what exactly happened in two crucial episodes. There are murders, one delivered (out of the blue – one of those dramatic shifts) in stretched-out and painful detail. And there is an eerie peace at the end. A book that stays with you, visually and viscerally.
I increasingly find, talking with my oldest friends, disparities cropping up in what we recall of our shared past – who went on what trip, who was there when that happened, what bands we saw – so this resonated:
But for every memory we share, there are many more that we can’t bring together, that we can’t seem to evoke in each other, that turn out to be something that only one of us remembers or the other only vaguely recollects or, sometimes, remembers completely differently. [p225]
Hold that thought and apply it to the extraordinary events of this novel. And then consider that in many ways we are all unreliable narrators.