Thursday, September 22, 2011

THEODORA: ACTRESS, EMPRESS, WHORE: A NOVEL by Stella Duffy ✰✰✰


In choosing Theodora of Byzantium for her subject, Stella Duffy picked a definite case of truth trumping fiction.  Duffy fills her novel with richly depictive discourse, transporting the reader into a world of political intrigue and religious turmoil, a world where the worth and potential of an individual was most often pre-determined by birth. 
Born into poverty in a time (mid sixth century) and place (Byzantium) in which women had very few options, Theodora, daughter of a deceased bear trainer, followed a path considered fortunate for one in her situation.  She gained renown on stage as an actress, which sounds innocuous enough to our modern sentiments, but in her day actresses, along with singers and dancers, became prostitutes to their audiences after their onstage work was concluded.  Ms. Duffy uses this early portion of the novel to display for us the strength of Theodora’s resolve to rise above her current status, the culture and chaos of Constantinople, and the squalor from which our heroine succeeds in rising.  To understand why Theodora is such an anomaly, and thus why she is to be so greatly admired, one must understand the situation from whence she came.  
Disclosing too much of the plot would, I feel, rob readers of some of the narrative pull with which the amazing sequence of events of Theodora’s life endows this novel.  Once immersed in her tale, it is a difficult book to put down.  The story concludes with Theodora’s marriage to the emperor Justinian I and her coronation as empress of Byzantium.  Initially I was very annoyed by the ending.  In order to fully appreciate the transformative nature of this woman and understand the complete measure of her intelligence you must explore her role as Justinian’s consort.  I am happy to report that Stella Duffy announces on the book’s Penguin page that she is working on a sequel, to be titled The Purple Shroud.
There is one single element that kept this from being a five star book for me.  The book made liberal use of the “F word”.  It made me approach the first sex scene with some trepidation, as it seemed to indicate that Ms. Duffy’s writing in that area might be a bit raunchy for my taste.  That ended up being not at all the case.  Which left me wondering: who is the intended audience for this book?  It lacks the explicit sex which the more profane reader might expect, and its copious research would lead one to believe it is aimed at serious readers of historical fiction, who generally, in my experience, appreciate better verb selection.  Yes, some might argue that the word is used to show a certain degeneracy of Theodora’s character.  I feel it degraded Stella Duffy’s literary gifts.  Through wonderful, descriptive prose Ms. Duffy makes clear to the reader the gritty nature of Theodora and her unfortunate origins.  If an author does such an admirable job of “showing”, why stoop to the baseness of not only “telling” but doing so with the crassest of four letter words?
Overall, I enjoyed this look at one of history’s oft ignored women of substance.  If the one element mentioned above is not one to put you off, I think that lovers of historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy tales of personal transformation and triumph will find this a satisfying read.

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