Holleman’s innovative debut explores the lives of two lesser-known sisters of Cleopatra.
In history as in fiction, Cleopatra has eclipsed her siblings. In this novel, the future queen’s older sister, Berenice, 19 at the time, leads a rebellion against her father the pharaoh, Ptolemy the Piper, forcing him to flee Egypt along with his favored daughter, Cleopatra; Cleopatra's mother, Ptolemy's concubine, grabs her two young sons and takes off, too. Berenice’s mother, Tryphaena, Ptolemy’s discarded sister/consort, has goaded her daughter into avenging her downfall. Once on the throne, Berenice rapidly takes control, understanding that unless she raises a sizable army, her father will eventually return, depose her—and make Egypt a vassal state of the burgeoning Roman Empire. The novel’s dual protagonists, Berenice and her youngest half sister, Arsinoe, alternate point of view under the chapter headings Elder and Younger. Only 8, Arsinoe is left behind when her parents flee—in Cleopatra’s shadow, she has always been deemed insignificant. Little is known about the real Arsinoe, and Holleman must imagine the particulars of this overlooked child’s quandary: figuring out her new status and negotiating a place in the court of a half sister with an inherited grudge. As Berenice struggles to reign alone after the death of Tryphaena, she hopes to shore up her military forces by marriage: her first husband, however, is so brutal she has him killed; and the second, who wins her heart, is a military liability. Although readers will sympathize with Berenice as she battles formidable odds, they may understand Arsinoe less: during the three-year time span of the novel, she behaves like the privileged but naïve child she is—her challenge, to survive despite being written off by her entire family, is more nebulous. Holleman succeeds in teasing vivid throughlines from an incredibly complex period of transition as Hellenistic civilization gives way to the rule of Rome. Her language, anachronism-free, artfully captures the matrix of myth and epic which nurtures and inspires her characters.
A high-stakes family drama.