The Wolf Den tells the story of Amara, a slave owned by the brothel keeper in Pompeii. Born the daughter of a doctor in Greece, she is highly educated, beautiful and determined to fight her way back to freedom. The book follows her and her fellow prostitutes as they navigate life in the brothel with being part of society and their personal lives. It is captivating and compelling, at times heartbreaking.
Bodily autonomy is not something these women have readily available, and the story touches on that in a variety of ways. There is the older woman who has aged out of the brothel and now depends on the generosity of her fellow slaves, the woman who gets pregnant after having had her first child sold as a baby and has to figure out how to deal with the situation. Being groped and abused is daily life for them. But despite their situation, these women are not without agency. They fight to improve their daily lives with kindness, determination and banding together.
All of that is not enough for Amara. Over the course of the story, she inserts herself into the business aspect of her master – apart from owning the city’s brothel he is also a money lender. She manages to grow the business in a variety of ways, not least of all through using her skills to impress Pliny. The prostitutes are referred to as She-Wolves, and the name is apt. This is a group of women fiercely protective of their own.
Reading this, it was hard to believe that this is a debut. It is well-written and deeply researched. It is full of historical detail about the city so famous for its destruction. It is sprinkled with just enough detail to make the setting come to life, without overpowering the story and characters at the heart of The Wolf Den. Although this is a purely historical novel, not a speculative fiction one, this will appeal to readers of books like Circe or Sistersong, straddling that fine line between genre fiction and broader literature. Amara’s story is one that is still relevant to the present day, where so many women remain in positions where they have to fight for bodily autonomy, and they are immediately perceived as lesser due to their bodies. Amara’s determination and ambition are a model to look up to. A truly modern book telling an ancient story.