The Night Villa by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2008. 413 pages.
Over the last decade, Carol Goodman has rightly earned a reputation as a skilled novelist whose themes and characters are often focused on the study of Latin and Greek, and on the ancient world. The Lake of Dead Languages, for example, was a minor masterpiece of language and plot set in the classics department of a school for young women.
In her latest novel, The Night Villa (ISBN 978-0-345-47960-0, $14), Goodman enhances her reputation and stakes out an even stronger claim to a territory all her own.
A victim of a shooting at the University of Texas — the wound has left her missing part of one lung — Sophie Chase, professor of classics with a special interest in the mystery religions of the Roman Empire, joins an expedition to the ruins of Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. Here Sophie hopes to heal her damaged spirit while she and her academic companions unearth and read some writings on religion by Phineas Aulus, a Roman traveler and chronicler believed to have been lost at sea right before the explosion of Vesuvius.
Along with Sophie, we soon see that not everything on the expedition is as it appears on the surface. Is John Lyros, the multimillionaire who has helped pay for the dig, really as benign as he appears? Is Elgin Lawrence, another classics professor and Sophie’s old lover, guilty of all the wrongs Sophie has attributed to him: womanizing, cowardice, irresponsibility? Why does the Tetraktys, a group of spiritualists drawn together by their love for the ideas of Pythagoras, display such an interest in a certain ancient manuscript?
Beside these finely-drawn characters and ideas Goodman sets the story of Phineas and Iusta, a Roman slave girl owned by the devious Calatoria Vimidis, a widow interested in the Eleusian mysteries. The dialogues between Calatoria and Phineas, and the running commentary and thoughts of Sophie as she reads their words, reveal to us some of the philosophy and rites of these gnostic religions, based on the worship of Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone: the solemn mysteries, the ecstasy and drunkenness of the bacchanalia, the use of sex, drugs, dance, and physicality to pierce the illusions of this world and reveal the nature of the gods.
Phineas, a fictional creation, is an especially marvelous character, mostly because he himself is interested in all that goes on about him. He would be a fine travel companion, a little fussy perhaps, but overall adventurous and eager to learn new ideas and facts. His comments on his hostess, Calatoria, are sharp and witty, and his relationship with young Iusta, with whom he sleeps after Calatoria gives her over to him for a night’s pleasure, grows into a bond of trust and friendship.
Although her Roman characters are largely fictional, Goodman clearly knows well the ancient world and the technology used today to explore that world. The Herculaneum of 79 A.D. comes to life on these pages as Phineas makes his rounds of the city:
“I descended into an elegant vestibule supported by four enormous red columns and washed my hands at a small basin with water that flowed from the head of Apollo. I had to admit that the old freedman had been right about the elegance of these baths. The cloakroom where a slave took my clothing was quite beautifully paneled in polished woods, the linen I was given to wrap myself in was of the finest weave. As I took my place on the marble bench of the apodyterium, I admired the panels of warriors locked in combat and cupids engaged in their own sports.”
Goodman’s explanation of the use of computers and electronics in deciphering ancient manuscripts will please readers who may have wondered how scrolls recovered from the mud of centuries from places like Herculaneum and Alexandria could still be legible. In a short interview with Goodman included in the back of the book, Goodman says that “More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration.”
The Night Villa is a fine novel that should please many different kinds of readers — those who love action and adventure as well as those who look for fiction with a literary flair.
Civil War buffs will especially enjoy Tom Chaffin’s The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (ISBN 978-0-8090-9512-4, $26). Extensively researched, The H.L. Hunley, the story of the Confederate submarine which made history by being the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship, reads like a novel. Chaffin covers the construction of the submarine, the crews who died serving on it, the possible reasons for the Hunley’s sinking, and the recovery of the boat in the year 2000. Especially touching is the bravery of the men who, despite various catastrophes, continued to volunteer to man the Hunley.