Monday, July 03, 2006

Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove

Nicole Gunther-Perrin is a modern young professional, proud of her legal skills but weary of childcare, of senior law partners who put the moves on her, and of her deadbeat ex-husband. Following a ghastly day of dealing with all three, she falls into bed asleep...and awakens the next morning to find herself in a different life, that of a widowed tavernkeeper in the Roman frontier town of Carnuntum around 170 A.D.

Delighted at first to be away from corrupt, sexist modern America, she quickly begins to realize that her new world is a complicated as her old one. Violence, dirt, and pain are everywhere - and yet many of the people she comes to know are as happy as those she knew in twentieth-century Los Angeles. Slavery is commonplace, gladiators kill for sport, and drunkenness is taken for granted - but everyday people somehow manage to face life with humor and good will.

No quitter, Nicole manages to adapt to her new life despite endless worry about the fate of her children "back" in the twentieth century. Then plague sweeps through Carnuntum, followed by brutal war. Amid pain and loss on a level she had never imagined, Nicole finds strength she had never known.

Having never read either of these two authors before, I came to this book without any preconceptions about the characters, the story, or anything like that. I was attracted to reading a story about finding yourself in a different time and place, and given that I tend to read historical fiction based in England, Ancient Rome was certainly a fresh focus for me.

Firstly, what did I like about this book? Reading about the life of an ordinary Roman woman was very interesting, along with many very interesting little tit bits, like the fact that many of the Roman statues were actually painted in very gaudy (and not necessarily tasteful) colours. The description of the smells and sounds of a busy Roman town were very vivid, as were the descriptions of the hardships that Nicole faced as she lived her life in the body of Umma, tavern keeper.

So, if those were the things that I did like, what didn't I like? Well, unfortunately, I didn't really ever warm to Nicole. During the first part of the book when she was in Los Angeles, I wanted to slap her, and say "Look, you aren't the only single mum out there trying to deal with all these issues". Then, when she got to Carnumtum, I wanted to slap her even more, if that's possible. The 20th century Nicole was pretty uptight a lot of the time, and she took that to the nth degree in 2nd century life. Her father had been an alcoholic and so she had never had a drink in her life, so when her slave Julia presents her with a cup of wine she thinks nothing of pushing it away and drinking water, and making "her" two children, also drink it, meaning that they all got sick. She was constantly making reference to the lead in the water pipes, in the makeup, and hygiene conditions in the town. Now, if someone was to really end up at that point of time, I am sure that they would be appalled by the conditions in the same way as Nicole was, but it felt as though I was being hit over the head over cricket bat over and over and over again with all the mentions of those types of issues.

It was interesting to watch as Nicole got to know all of the people that the previous Umma already knew, including her family, her slave Julia, her children and her boyfriend.

I guess for me the fact that I couldn't get to like Nicole all that much is a really big problem for this, so my rating reflects the fact that whilst I did like quite a lot about this book, there was one major flaw. Another less major flaw was that we found out what happened to Nicole's body while she was in the past, but there was never any mention at all about what happened to Umma whilst Nicole was being her. It would also have been interesting to watch Umma try to work out exactly what Nicole had done whilst she was Umma - like inexplicably being able to read Latin, and then when they were returned to their normal states, the fact that Umma once again wouldn't be able to read, and most particularly Umma's thoughts when she realised that Nicole had freed her slave.

One interesting thing, if you google for Carnumtum you can see images of the ruins of this actual Roman settlement which are located not too far from Vienna in Austria.

Rating 3/5


  1. I was hoping you would end up liking this book. Now, I wonder if Judith Tarr is always just average. I have a book by her in my tbr pile, might have to read her!

  2. I bought this book a couple years ago because I love, love, love books set in Ancient Rome. But I couldn't finish it because like you I hated the main character. She was just too annoying to take!

  3. I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who felt that way about Nicole!