Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Triple-headed Serpent by Marié Heese #review

Title: A Triple-headed Serpent 
Author: Marié Heese
Publisher: Human & Rousseau, 2012

As always, Marié Heese brings the past vividly to life. Though I’ve not read book one of this two-book story of Empress Theodora’s life, I had no problems picking up what had happened beforehand. We join Theodora in the aftermath of a bloody massacre where 30 000 rebels were killed to prevent the overthrow of Emperor Justinian, and Theodora does a lot of soul-searching.

With echoes similar to issues raised in Heese’s The Double Crown, which illuminates the story of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, we examine the lives of women who take power in a male-dominated society.

Though she started out as the mere daughter of a bear trainer, and was employed as an acrobat and actress, Theodora rose to power and proved herself capable of bearing the mantle of empress. Heese paints a picture of a woman fiercely loyal to her husband, the empire and the Christian faith.

Those interested in depictions of early Christianity might find this story especially fascinating. Heese writes with authenticity and great sincerity on her subjects. Her attention to detail provides a visual feast, especially when it comes to her delight in architecture.

For those who read her Afrikaans novel, Die Uurwerk Kantel (and remember her descriptions of the rose window in the cathedral), Theodora’s interest in the mosaic work and the construction of her Church of the Apostles, as well as the Hagia Sophia, will be a treat. All too often we forget the human elements that inspired these cultural treasures so long ago.

If one character deserves mention, it’s Narses the eunuch, whose journal entries intersperse Theodora’s narrative and offer a counterpoint to her side of the story. His devotion to her is incredibly touching – right until the end – and reminds me of Bagoas in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy.

Heese’s writing evokes a contemplative mood. Characters reflect on the results of their past actions and, to a degree, there’s a sense of delicious gloom. Death is inevitable, but it’s how you live your life that counts. A Triple-headed Serpent is a fitting tribute to a woman who deserves to be remembered.

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