A review of The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate

Although not an unusual narrative strategy, it demands much of an author and it is a pleasure here to see how Southgate rises beautifully to the occasion. Southgate goes beyond this to the extreme virtuosity of a narrative for the young and very troubled student, Rashid Bryson, in the third person. This mixture of narrative styles presents an agreeable variety and a functional neatness that is at once startling and satisfying.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Fall of Rome
by Martha Southgate
Scribner’s
2002, ISBN 0-7432=2721-2, $12.00, 219 pages

Two of the characters tell his and her own story. Although not an unusual narrative strategy, it demands much of an author and it is a pleasure here to see how Southgate rises beautifully to the occasion. Southgate goes beyond this to the extreme virtuosity of a narrative for the young and very troubled student, Rashid Bryson, in the third person. This mixture of narrative styles presents an agreeable variety and a functional neatness that is at once startling and satisfying.

This is the second of three books by Martha Southgate. The first book, Another Way to Dance, is a lovely book for young readers and her third book, Third Girl from the Left, is a penetrating analysis of family relations over three generations. Southgate has taught writing in a variety of teaching situations and has worked as an editor and journalist.

The scene of The Fall of Rome is Chelsea, an exclusive school for boys in Connecticut. It is so exclusive that Latin is still part of the curriculum. Its teacher is Mr. Jerome Washington, the only black member of the faculty. He refers to himself as a Negro, indication of the degree to which he has sealed himself off from change and relevance. But he is a complex character – a man who has worked out what for him is a reasonable stance towards the world and its demands. He is too individual to accept his blackness but too conscientious to abandon the ideals implicit in his position. To Mr. Washington being the best of which he is capable professionally is also the best way to contribute to the progress of black people. There is something cold and impersonal in this and it will be a fatal catalyst as the events unfold. It is characteristic that he quotes Roman authors frequently but all the authors whom he quotes are writers of prose except for Horace, who, in translation at least, is the prosiest of poets. Seemingly the warmer and more glorious world of Catullus with its bitter beauties or Virgil do not exist for him.

A new teacher to Chelsea is Jana Hansen. She teaches a class in literature. She is not a young woman although she seems the youngest on the faculty. She and her first husband have recently divorced and she finds the aloof Mr. Washington fascinating. They bed for a night before their differences part them irrevocably.

It is a black student, Rashid Bryson, who provides the focal point of the story and the reason for the differences between Jana and Jerome. Rashid has brought himself to Chelsea largely through his own efforts since the senseless killing of his older brother has traumatized his parents into a state of abulia. He feels lost and unsupported in this exclusive school for which his preparation is woefully inadequate. His roommate is a contrast to him, a young black from a well-to-do and accomplished family who sees his presence at Chelsea as fitting and proper.

Although Jerome and Rashid have much in common – both are black, an identity that Jerome denies, and both have lost a brother through senseless violence – they quickly take opposite positions from each other. Some of Rashid’s rejections of Washington are callow but many are accurate assessments of a man who has found a shelter in ideals whose difficulty hides their uselessness. Jerome betrays himself as a teacher when he unjustly fails Rashid and his life unravels at the same time that Rashid conquers his fears and the shortcomings of his life.

The management of this novel, a study of ethical matters, is adroit and absorbing and no amount of praise can possibly convey the felicity of this work. Martha Southgate is an important and skilled novelist. Unreservedly recommended.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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