Thursday, August 4, 2011

REVIEW: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Good afternoon, all! Today I am pleased to be hosting a stop along the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour, all in support of Melanie McDonald's wonderful new novel, Eromenos.

Melanie McDonald was awarded a 2008 Hawthornden Fellowship for Eromenos and was a finalist at the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has an MFA from the University of Arkansas. Her short stories have appeared in New York Stories, Fugue, Indigenous Fiction, and online. An Arkansas native whose Campbell ancestors were Highland Scots, she now lives in Virginia with her husband, Kevin McDonald, the author of Above the Clouds: Managing Risk in the World of Cloud Computing. For more information, please visit

Before we get into my review, let's take a quick look at Eromenos:

EromenosEros and Thanatos converge in the story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity. In this coming-of-age novel set in the second century AD, Antinous of Bithynia, a Greek youth from Asia Minor, recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, fourteenth emperor of Rome. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian s sanctioned political marriage to Sabina, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on earth both in life and after death.

This version of the affair between the emperor and his beloved ephebe vindicates the youth scorned by early Christian church fathers as a shameless and scandalous boy and sordid and loathsome instrument of his master s lust. EROMENOS envisions the personal history of the young man who achieved apotheosis as a pagan god of antiquity, whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years far longer than the cult of the emperor Hadrian.

In EROMENOS, the young man Antinous, whose beautiful image still may be found in works of art in museums around the world, finds a voice of his own at last.


Carefully researched and meticulously crafted, this is a story that grabbed my attention from word one, and which refused to relinquish that hold, keeping me in thrall until I had finished every word. This is historical fiction at its finest, honest and open about its subject matter, and straightforward in its telling, with no colouring of events from a contemporary narrator.

On one level, this a simple coming of age tale, taking us through the live (and death) of Antinous. We follow him on a journey across both landscapes and classes, from one end of the known world to another, and from humble beginnings to the highest of callings. Much of the power of the story is derived from his strength of character, his understanding of his situation, and his self-awareness. Although he is deliciously naive about his place in Hadrian's affections, to start, Antinous proves himself to be a quick study. It would be all to easy to paint a concubine (or eromenos) as a victim, or as an opportunist, Melanie wisely avoids that temptation. Rather than judge him, or cast a moral shadow upon from contemporary times, she allows his story to be told in the context of the times.

Of course, a significant aspect of that classical morality is the lack of judgement regarding homosexuality. More than that, it's the accepted role it played in the class and customs of the time. I found it refreshing to read the story of a young man who feels no shame over his attraction to his fellow students, and no embarrassment for his awestruck affections of the Emperor himself. As a young man, he has a role to play in the affairs of state, and his place at Hadrian's side has considerable precedent.

As for Hadrian, I think Melanie cast him perfectly, portraying him as a human being, rather than some perfect archetype. He can be capricious and cruel at times, but also warm and friendly at others. Although owed respect by his role as Emperor, we see that much of that respect is earned honestly, awarded to him by friends and servants by virtue of his words and his actions. His relationship with Antinous is complex, being a father figure, a best friend, a teacher, a lover, and (somewhat guardedly) a love. There's real emotion between the two, but it's a love that's haunted by the knowledge that it's only acceptable until Antinous reaches a certain age, at which time he must be cast aside.

The historical and geographical details here are as fascinating as they are diverse, introducing (or reminding) us of the most interesting aspects of the classical word, once again seen through the eyes of those who lived it. The aspects of the story relating to Antinous' attitude towards the new religion, Christianity, struck me as oddly amusing, while his faith in the stories of Greek mythology came across as genuine and commendable.

For those who may be put off by the thought of a love story between man and boy, the sexuality is left largely off the page, and what little makes its way through is carefully worded and subdued. For those who are willing to accept that love, even if it's just in the context of the times, this is a remarkable story that is well-worth reading. The language is beautiful, the scenery jumps off the page, and I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a history lesson so much. Melanie has accomplished something masterful here, and it deserves to be widely-read . . . and enjoyed.


1 comment:

  1. This book has been on my to-read list. I enjoyed your review and it's good to hear confirmation that McDonald has done her research as well as developing some subtle and complex characters. I'll have to make time to get to this book!