Sherri Smith opens her debut novel with an eerie scene: a woman buried alive and left to suffocate alone in her tomb. The 400+ pages that follow tell her story — and the claustrophobia never entirely dissipates.
Aemilia, the woman in the tomb, is familiar with enclosed spaces. At the age of six, she is proclaimed a Vestal Virgin, pressed into the service of Rome by a greedy father. Revered and untouchable, the six Virgins are charged with tending the great hearth of the republic, their spotless wombs and steadfast devotion keeping the sacred fire burning and warding off evil influences. Yet Aemilia’s devotion wavers, and halfway through her requisite 30 years of service, she begins to question the nature of belief, and the existence of the gods she serves. Then she falls in love.
Fans of historical fiction by writers like Sandra Gulland will appreciate the pains that Smith has taken to create a sumptuous portrait of Rome circa 63 BC. The author brings to life the bloodthirsty sacrifices to the Roman deities, and all the smells, tastes, rituals, and remedies of daily life in the temple of Vesta.
This attention to detail is accompanied, however, by some hyperventilating prose, and an abundance of awkward metaphors. A pair of legs are “two loaves of bread glazed with hair;” a heaving chest is described as “ebbing and flowing like a bottle riding the tide, filled with messages that only cautious fingers could extract.” The overwriting slows the pace, though the book does speed up toward a finely wrought conclusion.
At its heart, Smith’s novel is a tale of forbidden love. And yet, as Aemilia questions her belief in love, truth, and the gods from below the ground, it also becomes a study of the terrible danger, and absolute necessity, of faith itself.