Book Review: Cleopatra’s Shadows
by Emily Holleman
Little, Brown, 2015
Emily Holleman’s impressive debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows concerns the bloody, pathetic, deadly dregs of the withered Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt; it’s a dynasty immortalized by one member, Cleopatra, who seduced two Roman generals in turn and played a delicate game of power-brokering with a surprising amount of success until her inevitable destruction in the gears of a conquering Roman empire that had fallen under the sole rule of the man who would later be known as Augustus. There was very little room in that empire for the charismatic semi-independent client-ruler, and no room at all for such a ruler to have armed guards around the vast Egyptian granaries Rome needed in order to feed its people.
But the famous drama of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar and Mark Antony is a distant epilogue to Holleman’s tale in Cleopatra’s Shadows – the girl in the title hardly shows up in the book itself at all. Instead, this is the story of her sisters, the elder, iron-willed Berenice, and the younger, sappily nondescript Arsinoe. In reality, we know surprisingly little about either of these sisters, so the field is more or less wide open for storytellers.
The results of Holleman’s efforts here are striking, although the predictable first-book flaws are reliably present: the research is clumsily integrated into the drama, the character voices are only half-heartedly differentiated (with one exception, as we’ll see), and worst of all, the narrative structure of the whole novel would, I’m guessing, have been extensively revamped if the manuscript had had maybe one or two more beta-readers. As it is, the book is told half from milksop Arsinoe’s perspective and half from the perspective of the story’s only fully-realized character, Berenice, who takes the throne in Alexandria when her father Ptolemy XII Auletes (“the flute-player,” or some such) momentarily leaves the country (when he eventually fights his way back, he has his usurping daughter beheaded – that’s just the kind of loving family the Ptolemies were). In Holleman’s handling, Berenice is a cool, calculating figure, smarter and more resolved than most of the experienced advisers all around her. She’s never quite happy, even, for instance, in the first moments of her triumph:
But even as she drank in their chants, she couldn’t shed her fears. Her coup had been too quick and too seamless. It had shown nothing of her strength. Her father had fled before real blood was drawn. The piping fool would have reached Rhodes by now. And where to then, Father? Even as her subjects shrieked for her, she knew that, in truth, they shrieked against him, against him and his brother, against their loss of Cyprus. That last, vanished vestige of her once great house.
Quite a contrast between such sharp and jaded sentiments and the gawping guilelessness of Arsinoe’s chapters, in which you can practically feel Holleman compensating for insipidity with stronger, more evocative prose:
The interior of Alexandria’s great library had been stripped bare of life. Arsinoe gasped at the metamorphosis. In the main gallery, where dozens of wizened scholars once bent, copying ancient scrolls to fresh ones, there sat nothing but rows upon rows of barren desks. Far across the sea, there must have been some parallel palace, bustling with all the disappeared: Aspasia and Hypatia; her two little brothers and her mother as well; her father’s guards, though she could only picture them as headless corpses; and these departed sages, the kindly men who’d doted on her and, in happier days, allowed her to braid their winding beards.
There’s an often pointed urgency in Holleman’s depiction of this operatically dysfunctional family, especially the pitiless power-maneuvering of Berenice. And if the whole thing feels a bit anti-climactic, well, there’s always You Know Who for the sequel.