Eromenos is Melanie McDonald’s debut novel, and it is beautiful. I had the pleasure of meeting Melanie at this year’s BEA, and she gave me a signed copy of her book, which includes a map of the Roman Empire during Hadrian’s rule in 116 A.D.
The story is about Antinous, a Greek boy, and his relationship with the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Not much is known about Antinous. He was gorgeous but he died at a young age. Hadrian, in his grief, deified Antinous. Eromenos tells Antinous’ side of the story, chronicling his years as the favorite of Hadrian and offering an explanation for his mysterious death.
Death, identity, and power are all themes woven throughout the narrative. Melanie does a brilliant job showing Antinous grow from a naive boy to a thoughtful, insightful young man. At first he loves and adores his emperor Hadrian, but the more he observes his lover and master, the less he admires Hadrian. Eventually Hadrian, with his need for control, both endangers and saves Antinous’ life, and Antinous feels he no longer has any say in his own life:
“Every day the truth I must confront gnaws deeper into my vitals, like the fox hidden beneath the Lacedaemonian boy’s tunic: Hadrian is the master of every man’s destiny, down to the lowest slave in Rome, whereas I cannot even become the master of my own.”
The strength of this narrative is its language. Antinous has many deep thoughts expressed in a soulful way. One of my favorite paragraphs reads:
“Once again I found myself asking why gods are so cruel as to elicit praise from fountains of gore, delight in the deaths of male and female, or find, in the shattering of skulls delicate as eggshell, a source of glee.”
The story is divided into four sections: earth, air, fire, and water. All of these elements are necessary for, SPOILER ALERT, Antinous’ suicide. He sacrifices himself to Hadrian, as a way to free himself. Although the whole book is lyrical, the fourth section in particular, water, is poetic. Antinous describes what he must do before his sacrifice, making him sound both wise and resolute, a man worth worshipping.
Melanie has obviously done a great deal of research for this novel, and I learned a lot about Hadrian’s rule from reading Eromenos. She is a very capable storyteller, able to bring to life ancient Roman courts. But I did feel that the first 50 pages weren’t as strong as the rest of the book. The beginning is about Antinous’ beginnings, which is important, but I would have liked to see a bit more action or read more about Antinous’ insights and feelings. Until around the 50th page, the story seems to be more of a summary of Antinous’ life, glossing over most events until he interacts with Hadrian. Of course once that happened, I was hooked.
Overall, Eromenos is an intelligent, compelling story, one that I highly recommend reading.