The first few chapters confirmed I was going to enjoy this...
Then I decided to read nearer publication date in June...
Then summer happened....
And only now when the dust has settled, and the book's supposed moment in the spotlight has been and gone, have I finally settled down to read it.
It must be the publicist's worst nightmare, coping with this supposed tiny window that a book has around publication date, that merest blink of an eye in which to capitalise on reader interest, because we're all apparently fickle in our borrowing or buying and hurrying to rush onto the next best thing.
All in good time I say, us readers is not so green as we is cabbage looking as we says down y'ere.
Theodora is Stella Duffy's first historical novel and issued with a caveat from the author concerning veracity and historical accuracy, frequently sacrificed for 'plot or pace or character' and making no claims to be 'the one true story - just a story.'
I was fine with that, if it's long enough ago then all's fair in truth and fiction, more recent events squeezed into a novel bother me more for some reason. Historical liberties could wash right over me, any semblance of accuracy would pass my scant knowledge of sixth-century Constantinople by. In fact I was hard pushed to think of a single thing I may have known about Constantinople beyond the fact it's now Istanbul, even less about the holy desert retreats of Alexandria, others among you doubtless wiser. So I read this dazzling story with complete enjoyment... and I think it is sometimes worth remembering that a good story is actually what many of us want from a novel now and again.
The young Theodora, who did exist and did rise from nothing to become the most powerful woman in Byazantine Rome when she married the Emperor Justinian, starts life as the tumbling, dancing daughter of the late chief keeper of the bears, Acacius, recently mauled to death by one of his animals. Thrown into poverty and seemingly at the mercy of the state, Theodora's mother Hypatia and her sisters must beg for charity, and the five year old Theodora soon learns that her likely profession once of age (sadly about twelve) will indeed be that of a whore. Meanwhile she must succumb to the brutal discipline of Menander the eunuch who trains the girls in the stage entertainments they provide each evening for the wealthy patrons.
At this point I think I should put you through Theodora's paces because there is a moment very early in the book, when Menander does just this as a form of punishment but the thought of having you all there in contortions and putting your backs out is not a good one, so I won't.
Theodora will be faced with daunting times and many challenges in a world created by Stella Duffy that seemingly acknowledged the existence of women for one purpose only, but ever the actress Theodora can be whatever she needs to be, morph into any role required, as she attempts to forge a life for herself in a world riven by the factions of an established but diverse Christian church. Feisty, intelligent and ambitious Theodora never loses sight of that independent fighting spirit, and a moment of real shock for me at one point in the novel when her age is revealed... so much had happened I felt she should at least be knocking forty, not a mere twenty-something.
This is a novel brimming with a real circus troupe of characters who most certainly leap off the page as you read, the colourful dwarf Sophia who holds all the trump cards, the duplicitous friend, Chrysomallo, the ambitious Hecebolus who whisks Theodora off into the sunset as his mistress ...I just knew no good could possibly come of someone with a name like a medical condition.
I wasn't wrong and the ever-savvy Theodora knew it too.
'She'd seen far too many other women fall from grace through their dependence on what had once been kind.'
So a hugely enjoyable book; doubtless hours, weeks and months of possibly dry and dusty historical research lived through by Stella Duffy on our behalf in order to grasp the finely-tuned nuances of the era, and yet that research resting lightly on the whole whilst giving sufficient depth to make this a fascinating window on the times and in particular the lives of the women who lived through them.
All injected with Stella's customary passion and colour to bring it to life... and I think I could hear her wonderful laugh in there once or twice too.