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The House With The Golden Door by Elodie Harper

As it happens, the Auckland Museum has the cast image of a Vesuvius victim forever enshrined in their stony tomb. It is a powerful image demonstrative of the immense power of the volcano that covered the great city of Pompeii. Reading this book at the same time, it was hard not to feel a deeper sense of despair for their plight. Harper brings the streets of this once majestic city to life once more with The House With The Golden Door, reimagining the world of one of the bastions of the Roman past.

She did the same with her first offering from this era with The Wolf Den - a promiscuous and immensely readable sojourn through the brothel culture of ancient Rome. Now, with her second in the trilogy, Harper brings The House With The Golden Door, a novel that exudes the same passion and entertainment of the first novel, but with a stylistic approach that is slightly different to the first - perhaps with the protagonist, Amara, now a free woman.

The life of a courtesan in the upper echelons of society of Pompeii is beautifully constructed through the immersible imagery that Harper oozes throughout the pages of the novel. In The Wolf Den this was clearly evoked through the magnificent use of colour and emotional trauma that these women went through. Here, in The House With The Golden Door, one finds the extricated Amara surrounded by dripping wealth. But, deep within her is the gnawing feeling that haunts her sleep. The feeling that those women she left behind should be with her, not burdened with their plight.

On top of these nightmares, it is the benefactor that made the lavish lifestyle poverty. Amara finds herself thrust into a place where she must be waited upon by those who were once her peers, and all at the decision of a man - whom she struggles to find a long lasting connection with.

One of the most readable and fascinating books of the year. Feels as if you are transported back to that lupanar, adding to the mysticism of that wondrous city of Pompeii - long recognised for the volcano, but so rich in cultural history. As in the first book, Harper has the tremendous ability to make you feel at one with Amara, as if in turning the page she may just materialise in front of you.

Of all the many highlights of the novel, it is the character Britannica - and the exploration of her personality - that really stands out. An intriguing character from the first novel, the development of this woman was wonderful. The interweaving of truly and personal stories from the real Pompeii serves to bring the whole narrative to life.

Harper has set up the narrative for the third book in the last 25% of the novel. Some of the angles and focus of this final section feels a little out of place in relation to the previous elements of the narrative arc of the first two novels, one can only imagine that it is a purposeful decision to create a feeling of incongruity that will be resolved in book three - hopefully. Choices made by Amara seem out of step and unlikely.

There is a delicate style to Harper’s writing. She elicits the relational value of these women in servitude with such intricate detail that one cannot help but be moved by the feelings that are attributed to each individual character. Describing the seemingly indescribable, she has produced something that is equal measure ethereal and tangible.

If the first two are anything to go by, the third will certainly be on my list of ‘must read’ when that opportunity comes through.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Bloomsbury Publishing


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