Christine Whittemore may be a debut novelist, but, reading the first pages of “Inscription” which won the 2013 Eludia Prize from Hidden River Art Centre, Philadelphia PA, it became immediately obvious that she is not a debut writer. Turns out she is a well-known poet, with multiple accolades for her poetry and essays in several countries, and an impressive publication record behind her.
The author’s poetic sensibilities shine throughout this beautiful narrative, the prose is as spare and delicate as a poem, every word in the right place, carefully weighed to create a seemingly effortless prose style. The book is beautifully created too, free from errors, typos and formatting blunders, so that it facilitates a swift and fluent reading, without pulling up the reader and reminding them that they are reading, rather than hearing, a story.
The story is a time-slip format, weaving two time periods together, creating an arc of female experience that spans centuries. There’s nothing unique about the device, but the earlier time period (first century AD Roman Empire) is fascinating and the research and knowledge of the book is worn very lightly. The modern protagonist, Aubrey, seems at first so incredibly different from Marina, the worlds they inhabit so distant in time and space, and yet by the end of the book, we are struck by the universality of human experience, and particularly female experience, wherein so little of substance has actually changed in 2000 years, and wherein, I might suggest, recent progress is actually being eroded.
I recently read a narrative non-fiction entitled The Legend of Pope Joan by Peter Stanford, and was forcefully reminded of it, while reading Inscriptions. Both books pick at the Gordian knot of Roman legend and folklore. Both search for truth in a city and country where Inscription’s ‘Aubrey’ can stroll, in 1990, through the streets where the first century ‘Marina’ walked with her aristocratic mistress Domitilla, and where Aubrey can enter a basilica and request that a gilded reliquary of the skull of St Domitilla be unearthed from a cabinet, by a bemused priest, who didn’t even know it was there. There is a definite air of the detective story in the modern chapters of Inscription, which I found fascinating, and which really kindled in me a desire to know more and to visit the richly-described locations.
And there is love. And there is guilt. And there is sacrifice. And the hope of redemption.
A wonderful debut. Highly recommended.