The reach of a woman’s power

2011-07-06 00:00

MARIÉ Heese’s last novel, The Double Crown, which was a fictional account of the life of the female pharoah Hatshepsut, won the Commonwealth Prize for the best book in Africa last year. Looking for another powerful woman succeeding in a man’s world, Heese has fast-forwarded a couple of thousand years, and settled on the Empress Theodora of Byzantium, the wife of the Emperor Justinian.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Double Crown, and was therefore delighted to have a chance to read The ­Colour of Power. Theodora’s life is relatively well documented, and Heese has stuck pretty closely to what is factually known, but fleshes Theodora out into a believable character, at least for the first two -thirds of the novel.

Born into poverty as the daughter of an actress and a bear keeper in Constantinople, Theodora’s life was tough. Her father died when she was a child, and she was forced to earn a living as an actress and acrobat, and later as a high-class prostitute, before making it to the top.

Heese creates the world of the Roman Empire in the East in the sixth century, in all its patriarchy, wealth, corruption and danger. And the young Theodora is a lively, convincing character — until the point when she meets Justinian. For the author, the problem is that the historical record alternately portrays Theodora as a saint, a shrewd political mover or an insatiable whore. Heese seems a bit uncertain: once Theodora becomes elevated to the purple (the colour of power?) she becomes surprisingly wooden. She may be the power behind Justinian’s throne, enabling him to survive a nasty insurrection, but ultimately, both she and the reader had more fun when she was putting on lewd shows in the Hippodrome, or struggling along among the ordinary people.

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