Monday, December 13, 2010

X is for Xenia

“Two offenses ruined me,” wrote Ovid, “a poem and an error.”

Using the technique of many successful historical novelists, Jane Alison takes a mystery that has remained unsolved through the ages and provides an intriguing solution. Ovid, the Roman poet best known for his masterwork The Metamorphoses, was exiled to the remote island of Tomis in 8 AD for reasons unknown. In Alison’s haunting interpretation, the poem is Medea, of which only two lines remain, and the error involves a witch and mystic from the far reaches of the Empire who becomes Ovid’s tragic muse.

After incurring the wrath of Emperor Augustus, who was upset by the indecency of his recently published erotic book, The Art of Love, Ovid travels to the Black Sea’s eastern shores for respite and inspiration. There he meets Xenia, a young woman with yellow-grey eyes and wild, glassy hair who seems to personify his most heartfelt fictional creations. Xenia, who lives apart from the native Phasians in this already isolated country, has the ability to glimpse the future, and what she foresees for Ovid’s legacy is extraordinary.

Enraptured by his poetry as well as by the man himself, Xenia wonders what it might be like to be “loved by the love-artist,” to be the woman who inspires his next masterpiece. She’ll soon get her wish. Ovid, craving the immortality that Xenia seems to promise, brings her back with him to Rome. There he'll craft his new work under the secret patronage of the emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, who hates Augustus for forcing her into an unwanted marriage. Ovid has never written a tragedy before.  But with Julia’s vengeful ambition urging him on, and Xenia’s apparent willingness to serve his interests, he believes he may have what it takes…

Ovid has the name recognition to attract readers to the story, but the novel as a whole belongs to Xenia. Trapped in a web of mutual obsession, she finds herself led towards a devastating finale -- unless she can use her mystical talents and innate intelligence to break away and save herself. Her journey, as she slowly awakens to Ovid’s plans, is suspenseful and engrossing. The atmosphere is dark, eerie, and electrically charged.

Alison shapes her language in ways that create striking and sensual impressions in the mind. Her carefully chosen images brilliantly illustrate Ovid’s hunger for the theatre of Rome: “The stage would be glowing saffron red, and there would be the murmur of all the voices, and the intricate hairstyles, and the bare shoulders, and the messages flying, and the swift, appreciative glances, and the limb-weakening applause, which has often been for him…”

In exploring the dangerous intersections between art and life, between the poem and the poet, Alison has created a highly original work that evokes the majesty of the imperial Roman world and the price exacted in the quest for literary fame.

The Love-Artist was published by Farrar, Straux, & Giroux in 2001 (currently out of print).  This is my pick for the letter X in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge.


  1. That sounds fantastic - adding to the TBR pile now.

    I also have to commend FS&G for the cover. It's absolutely gorgeous, and so nice to actually see a woman's face and not the back of her head.

  2. I adore the cover - it couldn't be more perfect for the book, and I believe it's an original design.

  3. That story sounds fascinating - a great choice for the difficult X!

  4. I've had this one in mind for the letter X for a while - there were a couple other possibilities but I went with this one because it's a longtime favorite. I'm having a much harder time thinking about the letter Y!

  5. Thanks for this review Sarah, the book sounds fascinating. I had to read Ovid in Latin class in high school but this is the first time I think I've seen him as the protagonist in a novel.

  6. Ooh, must add this to the TBR pile. I love late Republican/early Imperial Rome.

  7. Ovid really said that?

    As a writer, I almost like the idea of a poem being important enough to have that effect, for good or ill.

    Literature is powerful.

  8. Ovid did write that about the reasons for his exile ("carmen et error" in Latin). Sometimes it's translated as "a song and a mistake." The rest is speculation!

  9. This sounds really good. I'm adding it to my TBR. BTW, I just found you on GoodReads and put in a friend request.

    Here's my "X":

  10. This novel seems like it will be amazing read for one intersections between art and life, always make a novel more lively as well as the setting of imperial rome will be a nice change of pace on my reading list. Fabulous review.