Monday, October 12, 2015

Cleopatra’s shadows

The author of a debut novel sidelines Cleopatra in favor of her sisters, powerful protagonists of their own dramas.

The story of Cleopatra has been told many times over, in many different ways, though there’s a certain consistency to the tale’s key elements — the seductiveness, the asp, the sultry kohl eyeliner. In her new novel, “Cleopatra’s Shadows,” Emily Holleman decided to break free of the clichés dogging the last great pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, the better to see her fresh. 

The book is the first in a planned series of four that will tell of Cleopatra’s rise and famous fall, but Cleopatra herself hardly appears in it; we glimpse her, in the opening pages, not as some Elizabeth Taylor-esque glamazon sure of her erotic power, but as an 11-year-old girl, setting sail from Alexandria with her father, Ptolemy Auletes, to seek support from Rome against her half-sister, Berenice, who has taken the throne for herself.

Berenice, 19 and in charge of holding together an unstable kingdom, is one of the shadows of the title. The other is Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s younger sister, left behind in Alexandria to fend for herself in an environment of political and familial treachery. The book’s title turns out to be slyly deceptive; Arsinoe and Berenice might be confined to the shadows of history, but here they are squarely in the limelight, powerful protagonists of their own dramas.

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