04 September 2023

A sojourn in the past (book review)

Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove (1999) is one of my all-time favorite novels.  Its protagonist, lawyer Nicole Gunther-Perrin, leads a dull and frustrating life in modern Los Angeles.  Her ex-husband isn't paying child support, her career is stymied by sexism at the office, her children are brats, her day-care provider just quit, and life in general seems to be nothing but a hassle.  To make things worse, Nicole herself is hardly the most calm or prudent of people.  One night, before falling asleep, she glances at a small Roman icon she had bought during her honeymoon in Europe years ago, and wishes she could have lived in the simpler and more natural time of the Romans rather than in the "artificial", "hateful" present.

When she wakes up the next morning, her wish has been granted.  She finds that she has been transported back in time and into the body of Umma, a woman tavern-keeper in the small Roman border city of Carnuntum in the late second century CE (the Roman gods who sent her have also given her a fluent knowledge of colloquial Latin).  At first she is delighted by this turn of events, despite some disconcerting signs of the primitive such as unpaved streets, chamberpots (Rome itself had a sewer system, but most minor cities like Carnuntum did not), and the stink of the numerous beasts of burden and their dung.  Nicole's first major shock comes with her discovery that Julia, a younger woman apparently employed at the tavern, is in fact not her employee but her (or rather Umma's) slave.

What follows is an intriguing window on what life was actually like for ordinary people in an era far removed from our own.  Nicole settles into her new life as Umma, concealing the fact that she is actually an interloper from the future -- but she is repeatedly shocked by such matters as poor hygiene and sanitation, routine public drunkenness, the general crudity of the Roman people, the pervasive casual sex and prostitution, and so on.  Most frustrating is the simple issue of staying clean -- without modern detergents and cleaning methods, it is simply impossible to maintain anything like the modern standards she's used to.  Nicole is especially unhappy at the lack of reliable remedies for things like yeast infections and head lice.

And worse follows.  Nicole's efforts to free Julia run into a series of maddening legal obstacles.  A badly infected tooth requires a visit to a dentist -- though he actually does the best he can with the tools and knowledge of the time, the experience of having a tooth pulled with no anesthesia except poppy extract and wine is a horror.  Her neighbor Titus Calidius (Umma's, and soon Nicole's, lover) takes her to the local arena for a "beast show" which turns out to be a ghastly series of battles between starving animals, culminating with a condemned murderer being fed to a lion.  A massive epidemic sickens everyone in Carnuntum and kills many, reminding Nicole of the value of such modern-day achievements as vaccination.

There are, of course, some good things too.  Life is genuinely simpler and less hectic than in modern times.  Crime is rare.  Nicole's keen lawyerly intellect enables her to run rings mentally around the barely-educated people around her, often startling them with flashes of insight of which the real Umma they know would hardly have been capable.  She comes to realize that Calidius is actually a more decent and loving man than her ex-husband or any other man she had known in her modern-day life, prompting the insight that good individuals can arise in any environment.  He later dies in the epidemic, however, leaving Nicole devastated.

As bad as everyday life in Carnuntum is, the worst horrors of all are brought by a decidedly non-everyday event -- invasion.  Carnuntum stands on the south bank of the Danube river, which forms the northern border of the Empire, and across the river lies the wild land of the Germanic barbarians.  One day, in a surprise attack, Germanic tribesmen cross the river and storm the city.  And war in the second century is not a matter of raining bombs and missiles on an enemy rendered invisible by distance, but rather of men desperately hacking at each other with swords, face-to-face.  Nicole sees a Roman soldier slashed to a bloody corpse, after which the tribesmen brutally gang-rape one of her neighbors in the street in front of her tavern.  As Carnuntum settles down to life under occupation, the popularity of Nicole's tavern among the barbarians earns her a certain perilous security, but nevertheless it is a time of tension and terror -- crude though the Romans are, the Germans are utter savages.  No less than the other citizens of Carnuntum, Nicole longs for the arrival of the Roman legions which, they all know, must be on the way to liberate them.

I won't go into detail about the ending, but it is satisfying on several levels.  When Nicole finally returns to her modern life, the strength and resilience she was forced to acquire among the Romans enables her to make short work of her problems.  Unlike in many novels of this type, which annoyingly leave the protagonist unsure whether their sojourn in another world was real or a hallucination, Nicole finds a way to confirm that, yes, it definitely did happen.

To the extent that Household Gods sets out to deflate our tendency to idealize and romanticize earlier and "simpler" times, it succeeds brilliantly.  You will never again take our much-overlooked modern conveniences, or even simple cleanliness, for granted.  At the same time, it inspires an appreciation for what a remarkable achievement the Roman civilization actually was.  Given the primitive transportation and communications of the era the novel describes, it seems incredible that the Romans could have unified a region comparable in extent to the modern continental United States and held it together for half a millennium.  The crudity, filth, poverty, and ignorance were endemic to the time, and were far worse in most lands outside the Roman Empire than within it.  The relative peace and order it provided were vastly preferable to the alternative, as the barbarian-invasion episode clearly shows.  The novel confronts the sexism of Roman law and culture unflinchingly, yet Nicole/Umma owns and operates her own business, lives as autonomously as her male contemporaries in most respects, and openly has a relationship with a man with no apparent social opprobrium despite their being unmarried -- things which a typical woman could not do in most pre-modern societies (or in some present-day ones).  It's not hard to see why the final fall of the Empire, three hundred years after the time of Household Gods, was experienced as a catastrophe so devastating that it echoed in the Western mind for more than a millennium.


Blogger Lady M said...

Sounds like an interesting read - I am always looking for something to read.

04 September, 2023 08:58  
Blogger Lady M said...

Unfortunately my library does not have this title.

04 September, 2023 20:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Unfortunate -- they often don't have things that are good but old or obscure.

04 September, 2023 20:48  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Oh heck no, I wouldn't want to go back in time to live. Things were harder, smellier and health care was crazy. I'll stay in the time I'm in, thank you very much. Thanks for the great review of this one.

05 September, 2023 13:09  
Anonymous Esme Cloud said...

I really love the sound of this novel, so only read up to the line where her wish comes true and she's transported. I'll put it on my list (I have one book half-read at present), and let you know what I think.

- Esme of Cloud fame always keen on unusual stories

05 September, 2023 14:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary K: Thanks! I wouldn't go back into the past except for very brief visits. The future would be much more interesting.

Esme: If you do read it, I'll be interested to hear what you think. It certainly qualifies as an unusual story.

05 September, 2023 21:45  

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