Twenty7 | 2017 (4 May) | 469p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 68 and an emperor is deposed. He lies in his prison cell, newly blinded by the men who once served and protected him. There is little to comfort him as he works through the pain and torment of his utter fall from grace, just the kind care of a frightened slave boy called Marcus and fierce thoughts of vengeance. Once this man was Nero, emperor and god. Now he has been lost to history.
In AD 79, Vespasian is emperor of the vast Roman empire but his family, the Flavians, cannot rest. Vespasian’s son Titus has become obsessed with worry about murderous plots against his father. They usurped power and now it is the turn of others to take their chance. But who? An obvious threat comes from the East where yet another False Nero has emerged to fan rebellious flames but Titus believes there is more danger, closer to home. A close friend to the family has vanished while a dog brought another man’s hand, wearing a nobleman’s ring, directly to Titus in one of Rome’s temples. The Flavians look for support and money where they can find it, and sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of sources, including an immensely wealthy senator from Spain who wears a bandage over his blinded eyes and is accompanied by an angry young man, his nephew called Marcus.
Deposed is without doubt one of the most extraordinary and original novels I have read about ancient Rome. It takes one particular bit of it – AD68-79, a time of transition from the Julio-Claudians to the Flavians via the turmoil of civil war and the Year of the Four Emperors – and makes it new. As the author David Barbaree says in his notes, we don’t actually know what happened under Nero and Vespasian. We don’t really know them at all. Because all we do know comes from historians writing decades or centuries afterwards who related ‘what others claim to have observed. It would be inadmissible in court’. The existence of several False Neros (there were no such False other emperors) suggests that there was doubt over Nero’s supposed assisted suicide. Who knows? Perhaps he lived. This is an author’s gift and David Barbaree makes perfect use of it. The result is a novel that could quite easily prove itself my book of the year.
Deposed is brilliantly written and very cleverly done. It moves back and forth between the years and also between characters, always speaking in the first person in present tense. This is undoubtedly ambitious but it is wholly successful. The voices are distinct, clear and immediate. Among them we have Nero, Titus and Domitilla (Titus’s sister) – all three of whom have an eye on history, but we also hear from others who don’t, including Calenus, a former soldier, and Marcus. Every story here is fully developed and gripping.
There is a deliciously complex plot running through the novel as conspiracies and plots emerge and hide. Some we’re aware of, others we’re not. And watching over it all is the malignant force of a terrifying and violent religious cult. It all adds to the mood of menace, the darkness that blights Nero’s life, the obsession that threatens to make Titus mad. Because these characters are all made to feel so real, we care for them and so there are moments of real tenderness scattered through this book, as well as sadness and fear and triumph.
Nero’s character is perhaps the most fascinating of all and it is riveting. You must discover it for yourself. It is equalled, though, by the novel’s strong sense of historical authenticity. Without overloading the narrative with background, David Barbaree makes it all feel real – the palaces, houses, prisons, feasts, temples and Rome itself. They are all beautifully portrayed. But what I also really enjoyed about this novel is that it explores what the immediate aftermath of Nero’s overthrow would have been like for the ordinary man, woman and slave of Rome. It would have been a very frightening and violent time, and extremely uncertain. As someone asks, ‘Is Rome safe?’. It feels very unsafe indeed.
The premise of Deposed is fantastic but its delivery is even better. It is remarkable that Deposed is a debut novel from David Barbaree. It is brilliantly accomplished and assured and I hung on to every word. I was just so sorry to finish it! I’m not sure if there will be a sequel. It’s a complete novel with a fine and satisfying conclusion but I would dearly love to discover what happens next. This is a world I didn’t want to leave. Extraordinary!