Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore

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Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A rich and sensuous love story echoing with passion, jealousy and treachery. Ancient Rome seethes in the background, while words spin the webs of connection between people, places and poems. Lovely.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141015033

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You might not have any Latin. You might not have read any Catullus. You might know nothing about this Roman poet's life. You might think it all too abstruse and obscure to have anything to do with you and what you'd want to read. Helen Dunmore, herself a poet, begs to differ. She's right.

Catullus lived at the time of Caesar and Pompey. He was born in Verona but spent most of his life in Rome as a socialite and poet. His poems are rude. Very rude. They include satires of public figures and friends, and they deal with sex - of any all descriptions. Many of the poems are dedicated to "Lesbia" - a code name for a lover of Catullus, Clodia Metelli. Clodia was married, older than the poet, a libertine and socialite, and his friends generally seemed to regard her as bad for him. She was embroiled in one of Ancient Rome's many poisoning scandals. The poems are wonderful; polished and controlled technically, but wild and passionate in theme.

Counting the Stars is Dunmore's fictionalisation of this love between a brilliant but brittle older woman and an intellectual, romantic young man. It's full of the joys and sorrows of an illicit relationship and of the seething ambition and treachery that filled Rome's patrician houses at this time. Clodia is a selfish, self-obsessed woman and it's clear to the reader from the very first page that the relationship is doomed, whatever Catullus might think. However, she's also mesmerising, hypnotic, alluring, and quixotic. We can't be in any doubt how addictive she is. And Catullus is addicted, jealous of Clodia's maid, of her pet sparrow, even. His mother died young and his father was a remote figure, leaving Catullus to be largely brought up by a trusted family slave. You can see why he cleaves so deeply to his unsuitable older mistress.

Dunmore brings her poetic skills to this novel, as she does to her others. The sights and smells of Ancient Rome sweep through the carefully crafted paragraphs as sensuously as the characters themselves. A love of words is always present, and perhaps the most attractive passages come when she imagines Catullus composing some of his poems. Through her, the Latin comes alive in all its cleverness, rhythm and vigour.

It starts a little slowly, with some creakiness here and there, but when it gets into its stride Counting the Stars becomes a truly beautiful book, tying a vivid period in history and a doomed love affair into a sinuous stream of words and word-understanding that, I am sure, would make Catullus himself proud.

My thanks to the good people at Penguin for sending the book.

If you enjoyed Counting Stars, you might also enjoy The Eyrie by Stevie Davies, which is also beautifully written with economy, or Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. You might also appreciate Deposed by David Barbaree.

Booklists.jpg Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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Buy Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore at


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