“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 is re-born in a city which is never named, but which can only be Rome. He doesn’t understand how or why he’s there again – a pagan god in a city where he has no believers.
Weak and disorientated, he’s sleeping rough when he meets fifteen year old Grace; a chance encounter in the streets of the Jewish Ghetto leads to the beginnings of an unconventional relationship. It seems that the god needs Grace more than she needs him, but along with her best friends, Caroline and Sara, she overcomes scepticism and fear to become his worshipper.
This is the beginning of their secret lives – prayers, shrines and “sleepovers” that are actually bacchanals. Their families are suspicious and their schoolwork begins to suffer, but after the first bloodshed, they know that there’s no turning back.
As Dionysus feeds off the energy of his vulnerable new followers, revelling in the chaos and violence of the bacchanals, it becomes clear that he is using the girls as a means to an end. His memories of past incarnations inspire the eventual climax on the Aventine Hill – the night to end his exile.
A cross between The Bacchae and The Secret History, In Exile is a teenage Greek tragedy set in 20th century Rome. The novel explores the themes of identity, sexuality, friendship and belief, and is an original study of a powerless, melancholy god living in exile in the Eternal City. It’s also a book for anyone who has ever been enchanted by Rome, a city which, like Dionysus, belongs to the past, waiting uneasily on the threshold of the modern era.
The latter by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest.... – Heinrich Heine
A white pyramid. When he opened his eyes he could see nothing but bright stone, splitting the sky in two. For a while he lay in the grass, watching it through half-closed lids. The world was too bright, too real.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend that he wasn’t there, but his breaths betrayed him. He was alive. There was no smoke this time, no hand coming to grab him from the flames, but he was alive.
When the pain of his headache had softened a little, he tried to sit up so he could look around. Behind him, the grass was scattered with white tombstones. If he crawled towards them, he could reach the shade of the umbrella pines. Despite the early hour it was already hot. His naked skin was a deep gold, and he was in no danger of burning, yet the intensity of the sunlight was too much for him. He dragged himself into the shade, flinching at the sensation of the rough grass on his skin. He couldn’t bear to touch anything. He had been away too long.
Later it would dawn on him how unfair it was, how desperately unfair that he should be awake again for no reason. The others were long dead, yet here he was again. Why him? Why now? Why here? Wherever here was…
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he was still too dazed to think clearly. He drew his knees up to his chest and tried to remember, but everything was blank. No, not blank – just dim and distant, as if glimpsed through a dark cloud. The past could not help or release him, so it was better not to dwell on it. The first thing was to find out where he was. In a sense it didn’t really matter, but it would help him decide what to do next.
On his hands and knees among the tombstones – the columns, angels and mysterious doorways – he searched until he found a clue. At last, here were words he could read. Above the wildflowers, between the death and the date, there was the name of a city.
He remained crouched in front of the tombstone, whispering the name to himself. So he was here again. It had been a long time – four or five hundred years – but a century and a second were more or less the same to him.
The birdsong was joined by another sound, a distant roar that gradually grew louder. He saw the motorbike emerge from behind the pyramid, and then disappear when it reached the cemetery wall. The world was so old, he thought, and yet so new. As am I.
He stood up, using one of the columns for support. He didn’t know where to go, but he couldn’t stay here, naked among the dead. Wherever he went, there was always someone who would try to lock him up, often for the most irrational reasons. If he got caught this time, he wasn’t sure he had the energy to escape.
With the sun in his eyes, he took his first steps in the city that had once loved him.
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