Benardine Evaristo opens her innovative novel with a line from Oscar Wilde, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
Evaristo does exactly that in this thrilling, tragic, and enduring prose poetry novel. She takes Londinium and throws it into a raw world that feels like slam poetry in a night club. The simple act of manipulating the language and form of the writing in the story allows for so many new windows of opportunity for the writer. The writing is raw and it allows the leading lady of the story to be shown in a real light.
Londinium is a Roman city in AD 211. What was happening in AD 211? Women were objects for barter and sale. They were beings with 2 purposes, making connections and making babies. Our young protagonist has her free spirited life jolted by an important, old, fat man who means to marry her. Perfect right? The family will have a new, high connection and Zuleika will be safe and comfortable for the rest of her life. But what is the price that a woman must pay for this trade off?
Evaristo writes, “but I was Felix’s missus / and protected. She stayed / two weeks. Felix came to bed at dawn, / if at all, insisted I bolt the door / until he knocked.”
Zuleika now lives in a grand home with slaves, good food, daily massages, and nearly everything she could ever want. But, take note of “bolt the door”, doors and women in any culture are always more than a plank of wood with hinges. In Zuleika’s case, she went from the doors of her father’s humble abode which swung both ways and allowed freedom to a grand and ornate door that shut itself and bolted itself not only to keep her in, but keep all others, but her husband, out.
So, why did Evaristo choose ancient Londinium to rewrite history? Maybe the reason is because little is known about that time so stories can be layered on top of what is already known. Pictures can be painted and freedom can be exude by the writer through her characters. I think that Zuleika’s struggles, though from another time, can still be felt in London. Picture walking in the same space that she walked through; she ascribed entirely different to the places that she encountered but she was still walking in what we now know as London.
Imagine Virginia Woolf walking with Zuleika. They may have gotten along! Maybe the advice Woolf would’ve given Zuleika would be similar to, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Zuleika had no real country, she had a nationality and a status but no place to really call her own. Did she not claim her own world at the end? It lead to her doom but she finally caught a glimpse of what freedom is and the potential that comes from being under its umbrella. Zuleika felt more freedom than most women, she had a sexual awakening despite all efforts to destroy it and she lived, even if just for a short time.
Why have a protagonist that dies so young? I sometimes wonder why these stories can’t have happy endings in our 21st century fairy tale understanding. But, I think Evaristo understands that though Oscar Wilde promotes the rewriting of history, it should still be within the confines of a basic structure. The basic structure of Londinium had no happy ending for Zuleika. Just a few happy moments that were milked to the fullest.