Cecilia, Linda Ferri’s latest novel, retells the myth of Saint Cecilia, the Roman nobleman’s daughter who would become the patron saint of music and a Christian martyr. In Ms. Ferri’s novel, however, it is not so much music that occupies her time as writing; the novel loosely takes the form of a diary without dates, private thoughts and observations that Cecilia records on scrolls of papyrus as we follow her spiritual growth from precocious adolescent to full-blown Christian martyr.
What appears to fascinate Ms. Ferri about Cecilia is the striking prospect of her independence, and the novel’s first-person narrative is an attempt to convey the shaping of this independence in Cecilia’s own voice. It is thus a work of heightened interiority, an attempt to lay bare the personal impressions of its heroine as she struggles to come to terms with a world that seems ill-disposed toward her. And yet it is also a novel deeply concerned with a particular moment in history, and the way in which an individual consciousness collides with the political and social tensions of the time. Cecilia thus carries within itself a squabble about its own historicity and fictionality; on the one hand, Ms. Ferri is concerned largely with giving a voice to Cecilia that transcends the historical moment. But on the other, the novel is inescapably rooted in that particular moment, and Ms. Ferri’s attempts to transcend it call for a dexterity that the book never quite achieves.
“I start running again, shouting their names, while the silhouettes of the siblings wave their arms in greeting. I reach them panting, bathed in sweat . . . Quintus is bare-chested, Marta has rolled the sleeves of her tunic up over her shoulders.” Is this the voice of a fifteen-year-old Roman girl or a conspicuously twenty-first-century novelist? The carefully selected visual details of a passage (“a skillfully woven swallow’s nest . . . the perfect geometry of a spider”), are simply too writerly to convincingly belong to Cecilia, too similar to a particular brand of post-Flaubertian realism to be applied convincingly here to the novel’s second-century-AD narrator.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose indulges in an oddly mismatched tonality, often vacillating between the stilted and ornate (“he was fiercely avaricious”; “tomorrow I’ll be imperturbable.”) and something that most resembles twenty-first-century harangue (“if I don’t die in childbirth I’ll get fat and ugly like any married woman.”) Whether these incongruities are the faults of Ms. Ferri or her translator, Ann Goldstein, is unclear, but a certain degree of repetition (“icy hardness”; “icy madness”), not to mention the odd Homeric epithet (“rosy-fingered dawn”) arouse one’s curiosity.
The effect of all this on the reader is jarring and perplexing. What is this novel really up to? Is it a kind of faux historical document, or is it merely an allegory of the soul’s journey to self discovery? Cecilia appears to want it both ways and, as a result, is granted neither.