Figures in the Sand

Janice Elliott, Author
Janice Elliott, Author Sceptre $24.95 (202p) ISBN 978-0-340-61846-2
Reviewed on: 05/29/1995
Release date: 06/01/1995
Paperback - 192 pages - 978-0-340-64693-9
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The literal setting of English novelist Elliott's (City of Gates) intense, lyrical meditation on history is a future Roman Empire, as scattered references to armored vehicles, existentialist philosophy and radio telephones clarify that we are not in antiquity. Figuratively, it's the end of history, as a civilization modeled on the first Roman Empire spins toward entropy. Posted to Syria to set up a garrison, stoic, brooding General Fidus Octavius leaves behind his pregnant wife, Livia, in Tivoli and his cushy desk job as head of the Praetorian Guard. The narrative-sometimes third-person; sometimes first-person from the perspectives of Octavius, Livia or Otto, the general's coarse, commonsensical aide-follows Octavius over the next few years as he maintains an uneven truce with bedouins, fends off barbarian hordes, survives an earthquake and yearns for his wife and their daughter, whom he has never seen. News that a tyrannical upstart has declared himself Rome's emperor propels reluctant Octavius on a final task. But his real quest has less to do with matters of state than with matters of the soul. World-weary and stiff-necked (literally as well as figuratively, from an old wound), Octavius is a decent man, whose reflective nature often complicates his political and military duties. His dark agnosticism contrasts with Livia's fervent Christian faith (which she practices secretly, her religion having been banned). Unhinged by the death of a bedouin friend, Octavius takes evening walks through a necropolis, hearing voices of the dead and desperately seeking signs of an afterlife. His thoughts on the nature of good and evil, the rise and fall of empires and the finality of death reinforce Elliott's stunning evocation of a civilization in moral and political chaos. In her allegorical world, at once exotic and joltingly familiar, Elliott has forged the perfect tablet on which to etch a spellbinding picture of the nature of time, doing justice to both the beauty and the folly of human history. (June)
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