Linda Ferri’s “Cecilia”

Reviewed by Morten Høi Jensen

Image of Linda Ferri’s “Cecilia”

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.