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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Young Fiction

The Man From Pomegranate Street by Caroline Lawrence
Publisher: Orion Books
ISBN: 978-1-84255-193-6
Reviewed by Thomas Morley

Everything about the ‘Roman Mysteries’ series sets out to be authentic. Instead of chapters there are scrolls (numbered in Roman numerals), there are characters with typical Roman ’mouthful’ type names like Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus or Gaius Valerius Flaccus. There is even a glossary at the end and a note at the start of the book warning readers that ‘This story takes place in Ancient Roman times, so a few words may look strange’.

That, as it turns out; is an understatement, as throughout the book, we encounter unfamiliar names, words, places, but most importantly an unfamiliar way of life and it is just that which the author hopes to drive forward in the series. It is clear that Lawrence is a scholar and, more importantly, she is passionate about the subject of Ancient Rome and about teaching it to children. This is evident in the presence of the main character’s ‘Paedagogus’ (or a kind of teacher; as a quick flip to the glossary would reveal). Through these characters the children get to discover reams of information and facts that could be equally for our benefit, as their’s. (A scene detailing the heritage of Rome from Romulus and Remus is particularly riveting and informative).

The mystery of this book, the last in the series, is based around the real-life (and historically accurate) death of the emperor Titus, apparently by his brother Domitian. Foul play is soon considered by the series’ now familiar team of young, teenage detectives, Flavia, Nubia, Jonathon and Lupus, and they carry out their investigation with typical vigour and gusto. Even as the story continues and threads unravel, Lawrence treats us to real, historical clues, actual theories and, most importantly, a satisfying mystery story; complete with twists and turns along the way.

However, hidden in this meandering mystery narrative, Lawrence does venture into bigger themes. With the characters conversing over the meaning of love, religion and even death, proving to be subtle highlights in the books childish naivety; even in the adult characters there is a twinge of innocence at the big wide world. Through this there is the constant question of: are these young group of detectives really doing the right thing? Culminating in probably the most philosophically introspective passage of the novel, signing off with a character (Ben Aruva, Titus’s Doctor) stating, ’Power is a dangerous thing… if you have it, be careful to use it for good.’ And while this may seem like a safe bet for a message, Lawrence delivers it at a time when the main characters are unsure of themselves, their attitude towards the mystery and the methods they chose to find clues. This takes the book away from the shallow need to find answers.

Even after a satisfying answer has been found we are still unsure of its validity, and this gives the book an almost adult approach to story telling. Which, along with the refusal to downplay historical references and water-down torture scenes and mentions of sex and rape, feel as though the author is treating the young readers as the ‘grown-up’ teenagers who are investigating this horrible tragedy in the story.

This approach, targeting young adults, however, does often turn mushy and clichéd. Clearly, the young girl in Caroline Lawrence chose to indulge in far more romance than knives and gladiatorial fighting (a scene of which offering some of the black-humour of the book, but surprisingly and frustratingly little action), undoubtedly targeting the novel to young girls, rather than boys. But I also feel as though this may have cut her audience in half; as a mystery story set in Roman times is a staple that any child should feel riveted by. Even in this day and age, historical accuracy like that present in this book is a valuable way to teach children something interesting; while, hopefully, enthralling them with a solid mystery and a great story.
© Thomas Morley November 2009

Thomas is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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