Rome — the city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar.George Eliot
Rome is a city of layers, each new incarnation covering the last stretching back for millennia. As a result, modern travelers who know where to go can visit ancient alleyways, shrines, baths, and temples that offer silent witness to the lives of the people who came before.
Katy Simpson Smith’s The Everlasting offers a fictive journey through multi-layered Rome in 2015, 1559, 896-897, and 165 through the compelling stories of a modern biologist on the brink of divorce, a pregnant Moorish Medici princess, a medieval monk who works as a crypt keeper and a twelve year old Christian martyr on the brink of womanhood. Oh, and there is Satan too, who whispers in the ears of the characters (indicated in the text by brackets) like a naughty friend offering advice and solace.
Satan holds forth on Rome, saying “This is the city for hustle, for building permanent tokens on human transience, and then building on top of those. No one is remembered except for the pulsing city itself, which — sack after sack — refuses to perish.” Yet, these characters have lasting resonance as we watch them struggle with the same issues that touch our own lives — love, faith and how to be good.
The book is comprised of eight chapter that cycle from present to past twice creating a historical scaffolding on which to hang the stories. Smith carries off this ambitious machinery with grace by developing characters so compelling and recurring motifs (a fishhook and an eel) so well-employed that her efforts disappear into a seamless, though segmented, narrative that makes the reader both witness and time traveler.
The stories deal with love (adulterous, forbidden, burgeoning, and religious) and faith (in oneself, a higher power, and fellow man). Each of the characters driven by love trying to do the right thing as they struggle against expectations and their own shortcomings.
It is easy to image a book that is esoteric, but Smith grounds us in the bodies and worlds of the characters to great effect. Tom, a biologist, has trembling hands, dizziness and headaches, which are early signs of multiple sclerosis. Giulia de’ Medici whose out of wedlock pregnancy is described: “She was more often tired these days, her organs now with divided attention. The sun chastened the back of her neck. Nature was foiling her: burning her skin, swelling her ankles, flipping her stomach.”
Felix, the crypt keeping Monk, who sits with his decomposing brothers perched on stone toilets to the sound of “steady seeping — an occasional audible drip” as he remembers his Tomaso, the beautiful boy he loved in his youth. Prisca, a girl captivated by the teaching of Christ, but trapped in a body she doesn’t understand: “Funny flesh. Her stomach after dinner a gurgle machine, her shins aching . . . The sour smell of her toes, the horsey smell of her hair, the way she could feel her heart beating in the strangest places.”
This abundance of detail draws us closer to the hearts of the characters as they make important choices about whether or not to end a marriage, to hide or not hide a pregnancy, grappling with the imperfect of man and how to best bear witness.
The result is absorbing story of emotional weight and human insight. Smith summed it up best herself: “Faith was a tiny shard of mirror in the chest that sometimes cut and sometimes flashed light.”
By Katy Simpson Smith
Published March 24, 2020