We are all familiar with Cleopatra, the hotheaded and passionate Egyptian queen whose impetuous love for Marc Antony brought her to ruin. Everyone from Plutarch to Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw have worked their magic to immortalize her. But what about her sisters? Emily Holleman brings them out from the shadows of history, shedding light on their fascinating story.
Cleopatra is merely a set of parentheses in Cleopatra’s Shadows, sailing away with her father to seek Rome’s help to overthrow his rebellious daughter Berenice in the first chapter. She returns at the end of her book, along with her father and the Roman legions. Arsinoe, her younger sister, hugs Cleopatra in the first and final scenes, but between those embraces she has been utterly transformed.
Berenice is Ptolemy’s eldest daughter by his sister-wife. She was cast aside along with her poisonously bitter mother when Ptolemy married his concubine, the mother of Cleopatra and Arsinoe as well as two boys. Cleopatra was her father’s clear favorite and that only fed her resentment and anger. Encouraged by her mother, she led a successful coup against her father and had herself crowned Queen of Egypt. Meanwhile, poor Arsinoe is left to fend for herself. Just nine years old, she is left behind not only by her father, but also by her mother who took her young brothers but did not spare a thought for her daughter. With only the loyal guidance of her tutor, she was left to navigate the dangerous waters of post-coup Egypt.
And dangerous it is, for both the sister-shadows as they struggle to decide whom they can trust. Berenice is offered advice by everyone from the mother she loves and hates in equal measure to the courtiers she despises. She thinks she can trust the eunuch who was her lifelong tutor and mentor, but even then, at this level, she cannot be certain. And her sister, Arsinoe, can she trust her? With her mother, her husband and others advising her to kill Arsinoe, how long can she show mercy and forbearance?
Meanwhile, for Arsinoe, the question of whom to trust is even more urgent. Abandoned by all but her nursemaid and her tutor, her survival is dependent on Berenice’s whims and avoiding notice. Plagued by dreams she fears will come true, she even fears being close to her childhood friends, friends whose families risk punishment if Berenice turns against Arsinoe. It is a fraught atmosphere and the tension in some of the scenes can make you hold your breath.
The story covers the short reign of Berenice with alternating chapters following her maneuvering at court and on the world stage and following the no less treacherous challenges facing Arsinoe. I nearly foundered at the beginning of the novel when Holleman’s writing was overly-explicative. She put us too fully in the minds of Berenice and Arsinoe, telling us far more than showing us. However, by about a quarter of the way, her writing grew in confidence – as she began to trust herself as a writer and us as readers. After that, the pace quickened and the story flew by.
Holleman succeeds in taking an unsympathetic and flawed Berenice, this bitter, paranoid and cruel woman and eliciting compassion for her. We are, perhaps, too much in her mind, as she stokes her anger and considers her decisions, but perhaps only from her interior monologue can we find any reason for compassion. Arsinoe, as a child, is easier to love, but the reader catches glimpses of the imperious flaws that dominate her sister. I love the complexity Holleman allows them to have despite their relative villainy and innocence.
Holleman is also successful in creating a powerful sense of place. I was able to see the palaces, the river, the gardens, the ceremony thanks to strong, active description that was remarkably efficient and seamless. That is where her writing excels. She is also good with dialogue. Her weakness is writing interior monologues. This is a good book and one I would recommend. I would probably give it three paws, but because of its original subject matter and the fascinating introduction to two unknown women who have spent these many years in the shadows, I rated it four paws.