About the Book
Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den…
Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father’s death plunged her family into penury. Now she is a slave in Pompeii’s infamous brothel, owned by a man she despises. Sharp, clever and resourceful, Amara is forced to hide her talents. For as a she-wolf, her only value lies in the desire she can stir in others.
But Amara’s spirit is far from broken.
By day, she walks the streets with her fellow she-wolves, finding comfort in the laughter and dreams they share. For the streets of Pompeii are alive with opportunity. Out here, even the lowest slave can secure a reversal in fortune. Amara has learnt that everything in this city has its price. But how much is her freedom going to cost her?
Format: Hardcover (464 pages) Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 13th May 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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As swiftly becomes clear, the women of the Wolf Den are nothing more than business assets – and perishable ones at that – destined to be discarded once their beauty or sexual allure no longer generates sufficient profit for brothel owner and pimp, Felix.
Set in AD74, the book vivdly conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of daily life in Pompeii – its bustling streets and market places lined with vendors, its bath houses, temples and taverns. On festival days, such as Vinalia, its streets become more crowded than ever as citizens vie for the best view of processions. Other scenes in the book bring to life the excitement of the Games with their gladiatorial combats and beast hunts, or visits to the theatre to see the latest play. Probably best though to steer clear of the honey-glazed dormouse served at dinner or the rigorous beauty regime Amara and her fellow She Wolves have to undergo, including tweezering out the hair under their arms and slathering their legs with with waxy resin then scraping them until they are smooth. Other neat touches in the book are the chapter headings consisting of fragments of graffiti or lines from poems and plays, as well as a role for a real-life figure, Pliny the Elder.
The diverse backgrounds of the She-Wolves whose lives the book follows – Amara, Dido, Victoria, Cressa and Beronice – illustrate the various ways in which women could find themselves slaves: being left an orphan, captured during a raid by slave traders or, most shocking of all, sold off by families who have nothing else left of value to sell. Whatever has brought them to the Wolf Den, they demonstrate a sisterly solidarity finding pleasure where they can in their rare time off from servicing clients. There’s bawdy humour in the book such as when, gathered in their favourite tavern, The Sparrow, Amara observes, “Here we all are… Four penniless slaves, sucking off idiots for bread and olives. What a life”. Of course, what none of them knows is that within a few years the eruption of Mount Vesuvius will change the life of everyone in Pompeii, rich or poor.
In addition to loss of freedom, slavery also brings a loss of identity. On being acquired by Felix, the She Wolves are given new names, can no longer speak in their native tongues and have to converse in Latin instead. Paradoxically, they are often ‘marketed’ to potential customers based on their racial background in order to lend them an air of exoticism. Whether to share their real names with others is one of the few things they can decide for themselves, which is why it’s an act of such significance when Amara decides to do so. And, as she is reminded, “even slaves own their happiness. Feelings are the only things we do own.”
I doubt any reader can fail to admire Amara’s spirit. As she says, “Either we choose to stay alive or we give up. And if it’s living we choose, then we do whatever it takes.” Resourceful and determined to make the best of her situation in order to one day earn her freedom, Amara’s not afraid to offer Felix suggestions about ways to enhance the income of the Wolf Den or his money-lending business. What she doesn’t realize is just what a cut-throat world he operates in and the consequences that may follow from him taking her advice. As he remarks, “What do you think it takes to survive in Pompeii?” By the end of the book, Amara has discovered exactly what it takes to survive in Pompeii, forced to make a choice between love and freedom.
The Wolf Den is an illuminating portrait of the lives of women determined to cling to what little control they have over their lives, even if that’s only expressing their disdain for their clients via disparaging graffiti daubed on the walls of their cells. If nothing else, it acts as a record of their existence. As the author notes on her Pompeii blog, the remains of the Lupanar is one of the most visited buildings in Pompeii, a place that visitors remember for “its erotic frescoes and for the small cells with their stone beds, left almost as if the women and their clients might return at any moment”. I can testify to this having been fortunate enough to visit Pompeii some years ago during a holiday in Italy. The Wolf Den would be the perfect preparation for a first or return visit.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.
In three words: Immersive, emotional, assured
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About the Author
Elodie Harper is a journalist and prize winning short story writer. Her story ‘Wild Swimming’ won the 2016 Bazaar of Bad Dreams short story competition, run by The Guardian and Hodder & Stoughton and judged by Stephen King.
She is currently a reporter and presenter at ITV News Anglia, and before that worked as a producer for Channel 4 News. (Photo credit: Twitter profile)