by Alexandra Turney
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Pub Date 24 Jan 2019 | Archive Date 15 Mar 2019
Unbound, Unbound Digital
No one in this city has believed in me for two thousand years. I'm unknown and unloved. And I'm very, very ill.' He sighed, and the sound chilled her blood. `Give me your hand.'
Dionysus, god of wine and divine ecstasy, is reborn in modern Rome. He doesn't understand how or why he's come to be here - a pagan god in a city where he has no believers. But when he meets fifteen-year-old Grace during a chance encounter in the Ghetto, he realises he has found his first new follower.
This is the beginning of Grace's secret life, as she and her friends overcome scepticism and fear to become his worshippers, drinking his wine and taking part in bacchanals across the city. As the melancholy god lives out his exile, his teenage followers find they have everything to lose. And after the first bloodshed, they know that there's no turning back...
“As seductive and heady as a good wine, In Exile recalls The Secret History if it were written by Julie Maroh. It’s a dark, intoxicating treat which conjures a Rome that is both familiar and dangerous.”
– Dr Emma Southon, author of Agrippina
“Lyrical as a fairy tale, dark as a blood sacrifice, In Exile is The Bacchae by way of Walter de la Mare. Turney’s delicately told novel evokes the best of the genre – but imbues it with something indelibly new.“
– Tara Isabella Burton, author of Social Creature
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 17 members
This book starts as one thing, and swiftly turns into another. And I loved it!
Reading the blurb, I reckoned on a YA cliche of a Greek god coming back to modernity and a teen girl getting all friendly with him
But this is so much more. The author has captured the ennui of the teenage years, where school is boring, and the summers are boring, and life itself feels oppressive, heavy and boring. Our protagonist, Grace, is fifteen and bored. Nothing happens in her town (which we read to be in Greece, though it is not ever explicitly mentioned), her friends are away on holidays, and she can't stand her family. She roams the streets, where she finds... Dionysius, in the flesh, newly in her world and very, very weak. He has no worshippers, no followers, and what is a God without them? So Grace becomes his. And it all starts from there.
I loved that Grace is a typical teenager. She thinks she knows best, but is easily manipulated by the god. I love that Dionysius is so utterly inhuman, cruel and concerned only for himself and the pursuit of divine pleasure... And I love that the further you read into the novel, the darker and more terrifying it becomes. Because when you lose yourself to divine pleasure, it appears you lose your humanity as well.
A reincarnated Dionysus living in 20th century Rome is identified by a 15-yr old British expat named Grace, who'd just finished reading The Bacchae for her Classics course. Stereotypical teen Grace is bored and helpless; unable to lose weight, to find romance or self-confidence, or to rise above average in Maths, Chemistry, Physics or PE. But that's not to say she's an underdeveloped character; Grace has artistic interests, a delightfully preposterous family background, and an extraordinary imagination, in which she escapes to the safety of dreams of her future self.
Grace introduces Dionysus to her shoplifting friend named Caroline who is over-confident, bossy and beautiful and also to Sara who is sweet, devout and caring. At first the trio's belief in his existence has a healing effect on the ailing god, but nothing is ever enough. These kids spiral out of control, mired in the inevitability of fate, awash in the notion that nothing matters, and defenseless against their dependence, and the violent and terrifying nature of their baser instincts.
A few of my favorite lines:
"Pentheus denies reality, repressing an instinct, the wild and savage part of himself. It's the repression of something natural that causes tragedy. When we deny ourselves we are doomed."
"Men were always subjugating women, making them powerless even as they claimed to love them. But Dionysus understood what women were capable of; he knew they could be stronger, more fearless than any man."
"Besides, you couldn't expect the same level of sincerity from gods as you could from humans"
Summer in Italy can be rather boring when all the friends are on holiday with their families. But Grace’s boredom finds an end when she stumbles across an ancient god, Dionysus. Quite naturally she doesn’t believe his story in the beginning, but slowly recognised who or rather: what he really is. When her friends Caroline and Sara return, she tells them about him and they are eager to meet him, too. So is the ancient god and since he has been longing for nymphs to feed him, the three teenagers are a welcome prey for his doings. Dionysus, not only the god of grapes and wine making, but also the god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy will lead the girls to somewhere they have never been before.
I am torn between finding it wonderful and shaking my head when it comes to Alexandra Turney’s second novel. On the one hand, it is beautifully written and I was captivated from the start, on the other hand, it is all a bit too much and too unrealistic. I was waiting all the time for some kind of revelation that could explain it all. Maybe it is just my being a bit too serious that keeps me from imaging an ancient god being reborn and founding a new kind of cult.
What I found quite realistic, in contrast, was how the three girls are spell-bound by the god and become addicted to his wine. It doesn’t take them too long until their whole thinking only circles around their Friday evening ecstasies. They eagerly sacrifice everything that was important to them before for their new god and the feelings that arouse when being drunk. They aren’t even scared when they realise what they are capable of doing when being drunk.
An extraordinary book that sure captures the spirit and atmosphere of Rome where you sometimes are lead to believe that all is possible and where the long history can carry away your thoughts easily.
Three fifteen year old girls getting blotto on wine every Friday night; unable to remember any of the details they spend the rest of the weekend nursing their hangovers. Not terribly unusual behaviour except these are English girls living in Rome, in what I assumed to be the 1950s, although it’s not explicitly stated. Oh, and they’ve fallen in with the Greek god Dionysus and their drinking sessions are actually bacchanals.
Dionysus is disdainful and lethargic, not seemingly someone to inspire devotion but the girls are in thrall to him. He’s awoken to a millennium in which he’s unremembered and unnoticed, and isn’t that just frightfully dull?
Dionysus is mostly in the background and the bacchanals happen off the page – afterwards the girls don’t even remember anything but the haziest details. So this book is really all about the teenage ennui. Grace, the main character, spends a lot of time taking long baths and sulking in her room. They go to school and occasionally venture out on to the streets of Rome. They tell their parents they are having sleepovers, when they’re really with Dionysus.
Slowly, ever so gradually, their secret behaviour begins to escalate (although it is still only hinted at), and the girls’ feelings of doubt and guilt increase. The final violent denouement was described in vague and ambiguous terms, which I actually loved, but it came too late in the book - the very final pages - to have the kind of impact that it warranted.
The girls’ transgressions are very mild by today’s standards, but teenage drunkenness and sexual exploration would have been shocking for the times. It’s as if the author decided to write the kind of book that would have been risqué in the 1950s, rather than applying any sort of modern lens to the proceedings. This makes it feel like a throwback, but I found it an enjoyable one and strangely beguiling in its hazy, gauzy way.