Ideally, novels can function as empathy exercises, putting us—readers and writers—into the minds and hearts of people who we are not and helping us better understand them. For this to happen, of course, we have to be willing to step outside of our own thought-boxes and listen without judgment.
I tend to think, as with so many things, that it sounds easier to achieve than it is, in practice. There can be a tendency to read ourselves into others’ lives, to zero in on what is familiar about their circumstances and experiences and blur what is unfamiliar, to react to characters and events as we would react rather than being open to others having a different interpretive framework from our own. This can make it less like empathy and more like cognitive colonization.
Most of the novels I have read this year were set in antiquity (either mythical or historical). Wolf Den, which follows the lives and fortunes of a group of enslaved women in a Pompeiian brothel, is one of a rare few that feels like an empathy exercise.
Things I liked about this novel:
* The author shows restraint. The absence of sensationalizing and sermonizing suggests trust and respect both for her characters and for her readers. The author leaves space for them to move and think and feel in their own ways.
* The novel strives to portray what is known about enslavement in the ancient world, rather than using the ancient world as a setting through which to portray modern enslavement. Enslaved men and women in the novel, as in the Roman Empire, come from various parts of the Mediterranean and through a range of circumstances, from being kidnapped, to losing their families and income sources, to being born into it.
* The main characters are not helpless and infantalized. They make difficult choices in terrible circumstances, but they have agency.
* The vividness of the world is achieved not through overt description but through the confidence through which the characters move through that world. This includes both physical spaces and the ways characters speak with and relate to each other. Their interactions felt human, absent of anachronism, and the relationship between internal monologue and external description felt well-balanced.
The only thing aspect that jarred for me was the use of the narrative present. For reasons I have not thought enough about, present tense narratives do not resonate with me. But that reflects more on me as a reader than on the novel’s quality. I recommend it highly for readers who want to experience the ancient world as simultaneously familiar and strange.
Have you read this novel? If so, what did you think?