Saturday, March 15, 2008

book review: Helena

The blurb on the dust jacket warns readers that this is not going to be the type of satirical book that they might have come to expect from Evelyn Waugh. It is described as a story within the agreed boundaries of a legend and then the reader is left to go exploring on their own.

It is hard to try and second guess what the intention was but you start to feel it might have been to paint a picture of the power that Christ still managed to evoke in people three hundred years after his death. At this critical stage in the history of the Christian church as the Romans decide to adopt it as a faith rather than persecute it the chase is on for relics.

Leading the charge is Helena, the daughter of the British King who has been wed and divorced mothering in the process the emperor Constantine, who goes on to establish Constantinople.

Helena takes inspiration from her namesake from Troy and spends the first few years of her life hoping to achieve her aim of travelling to Rome. Through her marriage and then abandonment, as was the Roman custom, along with her introduction into the brutal politics of the empire, that usually included death for those at the top of the tree, her illusions fade.

In her twilight years Helena converts to Christianity and then becomes determined to find the cross that Jesus was crucified on. She tracks it down thanks to sheer determination and a dream and then starts to fade away with her life’s work complete.

Helena is on some levels a fairly two-dimensional character that never really displays much of an attempt to cause change within an establishment she clashes with. But perhaps that is the idea that she only becomes someone driven once she is converted. It is hard to know quite what the true aim of this book is without knowing Waugh’s own views on religion.

As a read without a great deal of knowledge about the motivation it is enjoyable but perhaps frustrating. More meat on the bones around the interplay between mother and son and grandson would have been good and the story of her slave tutor who becomes a priest is one kept at arms length. Surely that would have been an equally powerful illustration of the way religion can change the established order? Depends of course on the objective the author was aiming to achieve.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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