Vita Brevis | Ruth Downie | 2016 | Bloomsbury | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book
Medical man Gaius Petreius Ruso has arrived in Rome, with his wife Tilla and their daughter Mara, on a promise. A vacancy is to be filled. Former tribune Accius has offered Ruso the medical practice – and home – of the doctor Kleitos, a huge step up from their temporary cockroach-infested lodgings in the city. But it’s soon clear that Kleitos hasn’t as much moved on as vanished without trace and Ruso’s growing unease with the situation isn’t helped by the discovery of a dead man’s stinking corpse curled up in a barrel on his new doorstep.
And then there’s Horatius Balbo, patron of Kleitos and now Ruso, who is convinced that someone is trying to poison him – only Kleitos’ mysterious medicinal concoctions stand between Balbo and a painful death. It’s unfortunate that Kleitos’ recipes should have disappeared along with their creator. Ruso is out of his depth and he’s sinking fast.
While Ruso’s running around trying to win some patients (and keep them alive), Tilli is trying to provide medical help for the neighbourhood’s women while creating a home but it isn’t going well, thanks to debt collectors who won’t leave them alone and the Christians chanting away in the flat upstairs. The crying baby doesn’t help things so Ruso tries to improve matters by buying a slave or two. That doesn’t go well either. It is as if the fates have conspired to inflict as much misery as possible on this family to drive them from Rome and back to Britannia.
Vita Brevis is the seventh Gaius Ruso novel and Ruth Downie is well into her stride. I’ve read most of this series (I still have some catching up to do) and I think that Vita Brevis stands very well alone, largely because Ruso and Tilla are starting afresh in a new environment. There are some reminders of their past – some characters seem impossible to shake off – but all is new and exciting! Rome is laid out before them, although they’re too busy for sightseeing, and Hadrian’s city feels like the place to be.
I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery behind Vita Brevis. It has such a good story. It’s also backed up by a penetrative look into some big Roman themes, especially slavery. By being centred in Rome, the novel gives off a strong sense of how immense the empire really is and so many of its distant inhabitants end up in Rome as its slaves. Christianity is another theme, although more lightly treated. We’re shown how Christianity might appeal to the poorer inhabitants of Rome while Ruso is also allowed to make his feelings on the subject clear. And then there’s medicine. Vita Brevis shows how haphazard Roman medicine might be, particularly when thoughts of murder lurk in the shadows.
It’s always a pleasure to spend time with Ruso and Tilla – and now baby Mara as well. These are such great characters and each is free-spirited. Nothing seems to go right for Ruso or Tilla – sometimes it feels as if it’s them versus the empire – but they’re not going to give up without a struggle.
Ruth Downie is a fine writer and she clearly knows her Roman history inside out. But she also inhabits it with people who feel real, their lives lightened by patches of wit and mirth, and places them within an engrossing and pleasingly complex mystery. These books are a joy to read and, I’d argue, Vita Brevis is among the best of the series. Long may it continue.
I am so pleased to post my review of Vita Brevis as part of the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Even better, there’s a competition! A copy of Vita Brevis is up for grabs – all you need to do is to leave a comment below, or email me (using the address on the right hand side of the page) or tweet to me. The competition is open to UK readers only and will close a week today (15 October).
For other stops on the tour, just click on the poster below. I’m in fine company, I think you’ll agree.