Caecilia, a well-educated Roman maiden, is adopted by her patrician uncle after her beloved father dies in 407 BC. Soon after, she is forcibly wed to Vel Mastarna, a wealthy aristocrat from the Etruscan city of Veii, as a means of establishing an alliance. The Romans are dying from starvation and need the Veientanes’ corn to survive.
Shocked by the loose morality expected of her as an Etruscan nobleman’s wife – elaborate hairstyles, sheer embroidered gowns, gambling, wine-drinking, and socializing with men – Caecilia dons her rough linen stola and tunic and vows to remain true to Rome. Her unwillingness to adapt doesn’t earn her any admirers. Neither does her status as a member of the hated Aemilian family.
Caecilia is quickly seduced by her husband’s teachings in the bedroom, although Mastarna’s heart still belongs to another woman - at least at first. As the political climate shifts within Veii, and tensions heat up on many fronts, she makes a desperate and dangerous attempt to forestall her predicted fate.
Storrs writes in the third person, but the tone is unexpectedly intimate as we experience Caecilia’s isolation and culture shock as she lives amongst the enemy. Her stubbornness in clinging to Rome may lose her some sympathy points early on, but her path from innocence to maturity is believably rendered, and her futile goal of retaining her so-called dignity makes her even more human. Caecilia’s interactions with three others of her sex – her caring mother-in-law, her Greek slave, and a proud Cretan hetaera – provide further insight into her personality and women’s roles in ancient Italy.
Special attention has been paid to the Etruscans’ belief system. We may think of ancient religions as mythology, supernatural fables of a sort, but the gods have a very real presence in the lives of these characters. While Mastarna follows the Cult of Fulfluns, which celebrates the exuberant pleasures of life, his brother Artile oversees worship among the Cult of Calu, the god of the underworld. The wedding shroud of the title, a transparent veil draped over a newly married couple that will also cover them at death, conveys the theme that death and life are opposing but connected forces. It’s also illuminating to observe the two nations at this pivotal point in their history; many elements thought of as classical Roman traditions were in fact imported from the Etruscans.
By the novel’s end, only a year has passed, but Caecilia has been profoundly changed by her experiences. Over this time, Etruscan society has become more familiar, but it still hasn’t lost its strangeness. With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist.
The Wedding Shroud was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in September at $32.95 Australian (489pp, trade paperback). Converted to US$, the price is about $25. Overseas readers interested in buying a copy might try Dymocks in Oz or The Nile in NZ; both ship internationally. I'm an occasional customer of both. Other suggestions welcome! Per the author's website, a sequel is in the works, which is great news.