Elisabeth Storrs first became fascinated with the mysterious Etruscan people, ancient neighbours and enemies of the city of Rome, when she saw the remarkable funerary carving that depicts a husband and wife under the same shroud. It is a picture of equality between the sexes that would never have been seen (at least as far as we know) in Rome. Driven by her fascination with this, she set about writing a novel that has as its central character a young Roman woman, Caecilia, but which is primarily about the Etruscans, into whose civilisation Caecilia is married against her will. The story is set in the late 5th century BC, when Rome was little but a fortified city surrounded by enemies - among them the Etruscans.
Sadly, very little is known about the Etruscans. There is almost no written information about them that survives; much of what comes to us is what was written by them by the Romans or Greeks; the rest consists of archaeological artefacts and the vibrant paintings that remain in some tombs. One might think that it would be hard to construct a novel around these few fragments, yet Storrs has done a remarkable job. Her Etruscan world is rich and colourful and full of life, bringing not just the city of Veii to life, but also its inhabitants and their - to Roman eyes - decadent ways.
Caecilia, the central character, is a troubled soul, unloved and almost without friends in her life at home. Although she does not realise it at first, her new life as the wife of Mastarna, an Etruscan noble, offers her the chance of more freedoms than she could ever have imagined. I won't give too much away except to say that this is a novel of sensuality and love, of fear and loathing and discovery. It's about loyalty (both genuine and misguided), betrayal and, I think, redemption. All in all, I found it a wonderful read. Storrs should be proud of herself for this gem of a book.