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The Emperor's Babe.

by Bernadine Evaristo Viking, April 2002 $23.95, ISBN 0-670-03071-6

Irreverent, wild, oddly familiar. Bernadine Evaristo's imaginative depiction of Londinium, Britannia--a remote northern outpost of the Roman Empire circa A.D. 211--is all of those things when viewed through the eyes of Zuleika, the clever young daughter of aloof, Nubian immigrants. Readers first meet Zuleika as an 11-year-old wild child running the streets with her friends. Her days of freedom come to a quick end when she is promised in marriage to Aurelius Felix, a rich Roman senator, by her social-climbing father.

Zuleika is forced to grow up, quickly and violently, secluded in the gilded cage of a loveless marriage. Once his new bride is securely in place with tutors and handmaids, Felix is off to Rome and the arms of his pale concubine and children. Zuleika is suddenly the mistress of a grand palace where her color and background ensures a friendless existence, and even her own servants plot against her. Zuleika works hard to make the transition from slave to slave owner, inflicting small cruelties on the young freckled girls in her service. Close ties to old friends are her only saving grace aside from the poetry she learns to craft in her many moments of solitude. That is, until she meets the strapping, Libyan born Roman emperor Septimus Severus and begins the torrid affair that is her eventual downfall.

The Emperor's Babe is Evaristo's second novel-in-verse. Her first, Lara (Angela Royal Publishers Ltd, 1997), won several awards, including the Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards' Best Book prize, and with good reason. The poetry in her sophomore effort is often engrossing and provocative, and she freely mixes Standard English, Latin phrases and British street slang throughout the narrative. The story--which posits Zuleika firmly in the paradoxical place of the timelessly modern woman--is a Greek tragedy for the HBO-film generation. Unfortunately, the narrative itself often struggles to live up to the power of her poetry.

--Samiya A. Bashir, coeditor of Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Art & Literature.
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Author:Bashir, Samiya A.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2002
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