This is the kind of novel I’d happily recommend to anyone, as easy as a beach read, as intelligent as any contemporary literary fiction. If a tale of the ancient world is outside your comfort zone so be it, I dare you not to be enthralled by the women of the lupanar, The Wolf Den brothel.

This is a remarkable book, it’s an historical tale that floods the senses with the noise and smells of Pompeii just a few short years before Vesuvius erupts destroying the city. Because we know what is coming that future event adds poignancy to the narrative. Pliny the Elder is a minor, but significant, character and his role reminds us of the disaster to come, recounted a few years after the event by his nephew Pliny the Younger. So over the course of the novel unknowingly the city itself is in countdown. The philosophy, culture and order of Roman society are portrayed here but so is the darker side, the hypocrisy and cruelty. Although much of the narrative is bleak Harper restores the colour and vibrancy of Roman life, something no longer apparent in the grey ruins, even the slaves can savour moments of happiness. You can picture the shops, alleyways, houses and lupanar in your mind’s eye. Then there are the characters, from the opening scene at Vibo’s baths we are drawn into the stories of the women of the Wolf Den, particularly Amara, though that’s not her real name, just the one given at the brothel. Harper has created voices to speak for the many women who were raped and abused and never had the opportunity to be heard before. Amara, Dido, Victoria, Cressa and Beronice are fully rounded out characters coping with the lowly status of slaves while retaining their humanity.

As much as this is a tale set nearly two thousand years ago it crackles with relevance today. The issues of slavery and trafficking, misogyny and violence run deep and they say as much about the lack of progress we have made in two millennia as they do about any past cruelty and depravity. What shines out is the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit which shines from these flawed bit hopeful, loving, bleeding, scheming women.

The Wolf Den is as engrossing as any thriller because Harper is an engaging and beguiling storyteller, this is a rich involving tale of intrigue, murder, survival, iniquity, despair and hope. Perhaps this is a feminist novel because it’s the first time Pompeii life has been seen form the perspective of its brothel women, it’s certain unique for that and thank goodness. This is a universal tale of the mistreatment of women, the subjugation of half the population, something we should all be angry about. Harper anger is quiet, her arguments measured and they never hinder the story but this is one of the most empathetic novels I’ve read this year.

Pompeii, AD 74. The ‘wolf’ women of Felix’s Wolf Den are bathing in the baths, waiting for the men to arrive, there’s a better class of punter here than in the local taverns and streets trade. Then Simo’s girls arrive, Druaca, the most famous and beautiful prostitute in Pompeii, and her acolytes. Suddenly the old woman who manages Vibo’s baths launches into the wolves, harshly evicting them from the establishment. Felix’s man Thraso gets into a fight with Simo’s slave Balbus over the underhand tactics of bribing the owner. However, Vibo sends Felix’s crew on its way. When Thraso and Amara report back to Felix he is furious, but, thanks to something Amara says, he develops a plan. Firstly, to bribe Vibo, he will invite the baths’ owner to the brothel and the girls will make themselves available to Vibo’s sadistic desires. Then, he will revenge himself on Simo and his girls, destroying the competition. And, finally, though it’s not their fault, the girls will feel his wrath and will have to earn the impossible sum of five dinarii each in the next day to make up for Felix’s loss of earnings and hurt pride.

Amara and Dido arrived at the brothel a few months before, Felix bought them at the slave market in Puteoli. Amara tries to protect her friend from the brutality of their lives in Pompeii but also needs to look out for herself. Amara was a doctor’s daughter, through debt she was sold to a man who promised to treat her well and lied. He abused Amara that first afternoon but his wife objected to the new slave and had Amara sold into prostitution. The five women of the brothel all have their dreams, hopes and survival mechanisms, they share a sisterhood and try to maintain their humanity in an environment that strips them of their independence, dignity and free will. Amara has plans for her future, she won’t be used up and thrown on to the street begging crusts. Felix will make her pay for her intelligence and her spirit, the slightest challenge to his authority or vanity is punished. However, he come to see, but won’t acknowledge, that Amara is resourceful, ambitious and useful. Will Amara’s will be broken, how much empathy and fellow feeling can she retain and survive?

The Wolf Den’s themes are troubling but, ultimately, this is an affirmation of our humanity in face of the worst kind of adversity. It’s really pleasing to note that this is the first book in a trilogy exploring the lives of women in history.

Review by Paul Burke

Published by Apollo (13 May 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1838933531