Thursday, 11 November 2021

Latin, cockney slang, and teenage argot

The Emperor's Babe I'd come across Bernardine Evaristo's 2001 book, The Emperor's Babe, in a search for fiction based in Roman times. It had won a few awards and been named "best book of the year" by several newspapers, so after reading 2019's Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other I got hold of the author's earlier work.

The story follows Zuleika, a black Nubian teenage girl who lives in Roman London. She wants to be an artist, but is married off after catching the eye of a much older man, Felix. The husband makes regular solo trips to Rome, leaving his young wife to entertain herself in London with her best friends Alba and Venus.

It's written in verse form and mixes Latin phrases, cockney slang, and teenage girls' argot. The story is about friendship and power, and brings to life how people lived during the Roman occupation of Britain. Evaristo describes "the camaraderie of the public latrinae", the bloodthirstiness of the coliseum, and the hierarchies within society. Zuleika has a hard life, but never feels sorry for herself. Her youthful enthusiasm and vitality make her an engaging and likeable character and it was a pleasure to be in her company.

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