Counting the Stars, By Helen Dunmore

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The Independent Culture

Catullus was early Rome’s most revered and reviled poet. From the first page of this intriguing new novel about his love affair with the woman whose identity he encoded as “Lesbia”, Helen Dunmore captures vividly both the poet’s tone and the heightened, overheated world of Julius Caesar’s Rome.

Catullus is a frustrated man. His beloved, Clodia Metelli, is married to one of the most powerful men in Rome, and has no intention of giving her inamorato any more than a few hours a week. It’s also a moot point whether she loves anyone or anything more than her pet sparrow. In Rome’s sultry heat, Catullus’s lovelorn angst and jealousy assume dangerous proportions.

There are a few jarring anachronisms, such as “Turkey” for Asia Minor. And however fascinating those whose affections blow hot and cold may be in reality, they don’t wear well in fiction. Clodia is no exception. But the supporting cast of canny slaves, witty friends and obliging poisoners provides the novel with much of its psychological weight, and the translations of the poems often evince a wonderful delicacy: “your golden feet – / lift them over the threshold / with bright omens.”

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