Wednesday, December 28, 2011

book review: The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate

The backstory: After so enjoying The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (my review), I wanted to read her earlier novels too.

The basics: The Fall of Rome takes place at a private, all boys boarding school in Connecticut. There are three alternating narrators: Jerome Washington, a Negro (his preference) Classics teacher who has been at the school for thirty years; Jana Hansen, a middle-aged divorcee English teacher who is new to the school; and Rashid Bryson, an African-American first-year student with dreadlocks who comes from a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn.

My thoughts: In The Fall of Rome, the three main characters were delightfully diverse, yet I found equally myself compelled by all of them. Despite the differences of these three characters, none were a caricature. Jerome, who could be a bit of a curmudgeon after thirty years at one institution, still had balance:
"One thing that became clear to me after I had taught at Chelsea for awhile is that for the most part my students were likely to grow up and lead lives as successful but also as mundane as those of their parents. That made it all the more thrilling when I saw something extraordinary in a boy."
I have a fondness for academic novels, but the specific issues of this academic microcosm were fascinating on both a micro and macro scale. What is the role of an all boys boarding school today? Does racial diversity matter? What responsibility do African-American teachers have to mentor and recruit diverse students? Is it responsible to recruit students who are ill prepared for academic rigor? There are no easy answers to these questions, of course, but Southgate masterfully uses the three characters to play out the complications inherent in all of these questions.

Having read The Taste of Salt so recently, I was struck by a similarity of theme in Southgate's work. Both novels feature an intellectual African-American who works at an elite institution and is the only black person who works there. Both have issues with their pasts. I found these parallels between Jerome and Josie fascinating, and I caught myself imagining what a conversation between the two of them would sound like.

Favorite passage: "Of course, I had heard my parents fighting bitterly many nights. But I thought that was what marriage was--a series of barely moderated battles broken by the creaking sighs of bedsprings and soft sobs."

The verdict: I adore the way Martha Southgate writes. She develops her characters and offers stunning insight in short books. The questions posed in this novel are important ones, and I am grateful Southgate isn't afraid to leave things messy. The Fall of Rome deals with numerous issues, many about race, but it works as both the story of these three characters and as a story bigger than these three characters.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: January 2002
Source: interlibrary loan

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Fall of Rome from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. I've avoided The Taste of Salt--something to do with a cover that reminds me of chick lit. Shallow on my part, I know. Having read your review of this book and having looked back at your review of The Taste of Salt, I think I was misguided! These definitely sound like novels I would enjoy. Thanks for getting my attention!

  2. I had never heard of this book before, but I also enjoy books about academia, and think that I might enjoy this one. Thanks for the excellent review and the intriguing quotes. This one is going on my list!


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