Originally published: July 2018
Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Published by: Hamish Hamilton
Genre: Literary Fiction
Page count: 336
Reading dates: 3-7 July 2018
Star Rating: 3.5/5
“It has been almost fifteen years. I’ve though about you often, mostly unkindly. But there: I have thought about you.”
Nearly 20 years after Vita broke off contact with Royce, he writes to her on his deathbed, determined to excavate the past. He is older than her, a former benefactor from her University days and from the letters between them we learn of their relationship, but this is a relatively small part of the book.
We hear a great deal about Royce’s younger days as a student himself and his infatuation with Kitty a fellow student whom he helped financially so she could visit an archaeological dig in Pompeii. Their work was based around The Garden of Fugitives where thirteen hollow spaces were found in the hardened layers of ash and volcanic debris. These spaces were filled with plaster and quickly became the statues of thirteen people — the largest number of victims found in one site.
Vita, a South African film student, studying in America received a grant that Royce set up in Kitty’s name several years later. She tries several times to make films but they are never quite right and at the end of her course she returns to South Africa (despite it not having been her home for a number of years), directionless and we hear of her life in Cape Town.
The letters go back and forth, almost as if both writers are using the task as a sort of therapy – the letters don’t connect with each other but each writer continues their story. Themes include racism, obsession, loyalty and guilt.
I found all the stuff about Pompeii very interesting and the letters between Royce and Vita were intriguing. I’m sure a lot of it went over my head and while I’m glad I read it, I can’t really say if I enjoyed it. Neither character was very likeable but luckily their voices through the letters were interesting enough to keep me reading.
Thank you to Cat Mitchell at Penguin Random House for sending a copy my way.
The Garden of the Fugitives is part of the Pompeii Archaeological Site and is one of the most moving areas in Pompeii.
Here, thirteen hollow spaces were found in the hardened layers of ash and volcanic debris. These spaces were filled with plaster and quickly became the statues of thirteen people–the largest number of victims found in one site. From their position in the ash, archaeologists were able to determine that they had died early in the morning of the second day of the eruption as they attempted to flee the city. They had no way of knowing that the eruption had entered its second and deadlier phase. Super hot toxic clouds of gas and debris blasted down the slopes of Vesuvius and overwhelmed Pompeii, killing everyone who had not yet left.
The location where the bodies were created became called the Garden (and sometimes the orchard) of the Fugitives, though that was not the name in ancient Pompeii. It was an area of vineyards with an outdoor triclinium, or dining room for summer eating.
About the author:
Ceridwen Dovey grew up in South Africa and Australia, studied as an undergraduate at Harvard, and now lives in Sydney. Her first novel, Blood Kin, was translated into fifteen languages and selected for the US National Book Foundation’s prestigious ‘5 Under 35’ award. J.M. Coetzee called it ‘A fable of the arrogance of power beneath whose dreamlike surface swirl currents of complex sensuality.’ Her second work of fiction, Only the Animals, was in 2014.