Happy to share another reader review, this time from Olga Walker, a PhD candidate and herself a historical fiction/non-fiction writer. Big thanks, Olga!
Based on rigorous research, author Victoria Collins has written a book that encapsulates a story about women in Rome 114BC. The main characters in this historical fiction novel are the priestesses of Vesta. Collins takes the reader on a journey through the lives of these women in the lead-up to an event which will be life-changing for them.
As a reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh realities of life for women at that time.
Of note is Collins’s Foreword where she highlights that the story of the Vestal Virgins,
can only be told in fragments, because fragments are all we find, and fragments are all we remember. (Collins, 2018: Foreword, p. 5).
The novel is structured in nine chapters, consisting of short and long passages and includes reference to research by scholars of Roman history which Collins has entitled, ‘Fragments’. These fragments of history act as interventions and help contextualise the incompleteness of the story that remains about the Vestal Virgins. More importantly, they highlight how fragmented the nature of history writing can be. Collins is a great writer and her use of language complements this notion of fragmented history writing when it occasionally sits outside the story, for example,
Ever killed anything but kittens before, junior? (Collins, p. 9).
The notion of fragments has been used to form the structure of the novel and is sustained within a dimension of connectedness to nature’s elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air as the reader follows the actions of the main characters, Secunda and Amelia. Collins’s approach keeps the story focused and the reader engaged as she builds a picture of what might have been daily rituals in the lives of the Priestesses of Vesta.
In her research of the history of the Vestal Virgins Collins visited the location in search of a sense of connection to the area where the story takes place. This has enabled her to give the reader vivid descriptions of the temple where we can visualise the interactions of the priestesses with the powerful elite of Rome, the people whom the Vestal Virgins serve, and how they bring together the principal elements of nature to their sacred hearth. Collins writes in a final note to the reader that,
it was a time when the sacred included connection to the earth, air, wind and fire. (Collins, p. 256).
The significance of a work like Fire and Sacrifice is that in telling a story about women’s history that has almost been lost, it also raises the issues of politics, power, class, and gender equality in relation to how women were chosen for the role of a Vestal Virgin.
Collins has an awareness of the fragmented nature of researching and writing history and her work is a good example of how this can be used to write a story set in the past. The direct linking of the creative writing in the novel to the research done by scholars provides a platform where history and historical fiction can work together. When stories are written with a perception of the incompleteness of what is remembered and how history has been written in the past, the reader benefits by being left to draw their own conclusions on the author’s stance when writing a story such as Fire and Sacrifice.
As a reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh realities of life for women at that time. Maybe more could have been written about the families from whence these vestal virgins came, but there is enough in the novel about the division between master/mistress and slave and the politics of the day to satisfy the reader. Nor, does she romanticise the position that the Vestal Virgins held in Rome at that time.
This is Collins’s first historical novel and I hope it won’t be her last. Her other work includes Fast Effective News Writing for Nonprofits, and I believe she is working on a contemporary fictional novel. It is for the reader to decide, but I recommend that a journey through Fire and Sacrifice be taken.