A historical novel wedged tightly at the center of a grave political uproar and an unlikely relationship.
Inspired by a true story, Rocklin’s (The Luminist, 2011, etc.) newest work kicks off in 1900 Villefranche, France, with a man observing a woman in “baggy, overly billowing clothing.” The man realizes it is none other than an aging Queen Victoria. This encounter elicits a series of flashbacks, which propel the reader into the middle of the 1868 Abyssinian war, when Prince Alamayou is taken to Windsor under the royal family’s careful watch. Son of the despot emperor Tewedros, he is to be tried for his father’s war crimes, but the queen’s court is a foreign land to him, as he neither speaks the language nor understands the culture. Thankfully, back in Abyssinia, Alamayou had befriended a doctor’s apprentice called Philip Layard who comes with him to the United Kingdom. Philip serves as an interpreter, though he can’t speak Aramaic. They communicate through their bodies, turning gestures into complex sentences and glances into intricately woven novels. An aspiring painter, Alamayou uses his work to depict the delicate nature of relationships and soon catches the attention of the queen, who is in permanent mourning for her late husband. Rocklin does a beautiful job capturing the raw emotions that bring Alamayou and the queen closer together, all the while exploring the forbidden intimacy between him and Philip that permeates the novel. The author keeps the reader eagerly awaiting Alamayou’s trial and is careful to convince both the royal court and the reader of his innocence. But perhaps the most important aspect of this story is Rocklin’s indirect treatment of immigration and tolerance. Alamayou thinks: “to live in the city is to risk being sent away,” a statement that rings true today more than ever.
A moving and inspiring novel that shows what happens when those in power listen to foreign visitors.