Medical and Philosophical Teachings, Romance, Witchcraft Accusations and Mob Violence in the 410s AD of Roman Alexandria
While most of us are familiar with the early Egyptian historical periods, during the reign of the Pharos, Alexander, Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Anthony and others, little is known about a Greek lady philosopher named Hypatia. Faith Justice has chosen to pen a historical fiction novel during Hypatia’s life and times in Alexandria during the 410s AD. By then although Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, a significant populace of other believers, Jews and pagans, existed in Egypt. The civilian rule was administered by the Constantinople appointed Prefect (governor), while the Patriarch (bishop) presided over the Christian church affairs.
This heart-wrenching story is narrated through the eyes of a young girl, Selene, born to a land-owning Christian family. Her mother having died, she is brought up by her ailing father and an elder brother, although they are busy in business and other duties. A second brother, her childhood playmate, joins the army and leaves for service overseas. Hence, Selene, having to grow up on her own, develops an independent mind. Even though it was most uncharacteristic for girls of her time, she decides to become a physician. Her desire blossoms when she witnesses the death of her beloved mother and decides to “thwart death any way she could.” She shears her hair, disguises herself as a boy and with the help of her brother attends Lady Hypatia’s school. Hypatia is taken in by Selene’s courage and helps her—with some assistance from the recently appointed Prefect—to overcome her father’s vehement objections to embark on a medical education. Herein lays Justice’s skillfulness in narrating the story. We are able to observe the lady philosopher through the trials and tribulations and romance that Selene encounters.
Although a movie, "Agora," on Hypatia’s life was made in 2009, one of the reviewers on its debut at the Cannes Film Festival  had remarked that a problem with the movie is that it struggles to properly develop the romantic side of the story, Justice’s novel has no such “problem.” While, keeping with the historical facts, Hypatia remains virginal, there is no dearth of romance in the story. Justice has skillfully woven three love-stories into the plot to add much interest to make the novel into a historical romance epic.
Readers’ interest will also be maintained by all the intricate details of the 5th Century life in Alexandria, the surroundings, buildings, people’s clothing, food and everything that will perk our imagination and enable us to walk and sit beside the characters. The fruits of the research that Justice began in 1980 show amply. For instance when describing the top of the sarcophagus of her girl-friend’s coffin—that another less careful writer may have simply referred to as a ‘cover’—Justice writes: “… The lid standing on end next to the coffin was covered with Christian symbols – an ankh, a lamb in a meadow – mixed with traditional Egyptian death scenes. The Sky Goddess spread her wings over the world in protection while an ibis speared fish in the Mother Nile …” Such evocative writing would surely make the cover appear before our eyes.
Selene puts her medical knowledge to good use on several occasions. She brings her father back to life after a severe heart-attack and administers first aid to victims of the religious riots. It was her timely cesarean on her girl-friend—who had died moments earlier during child birth—that saves the baby. But it gets her in trouble with the jealous physician, who complains to the Patriarch of Selene’s unqualified surgery. Selene gets dragged first through a ‘malpractice’ trial and then a charge of witchcraft. The Patriarch, who had been systematically engaged in having his people riot and expel the Jews and pagans from the city, takes this opportunity to excite the inhabitants against the aging Lady Hypatia. Selene is caught in the conflict between the fanatical Patriarch and the Roman authoritarian Prefect, who develops a soft corner in his heart for her. While historians have been searching, over the centuries, for justifications for Hypatia’s unpopularity with the Christian church, through skillful plot twists, Justice has provided us a plausible reason for that unspeakable event conducted by an unruly mob.
Selene of Alexandria, at 346 pages it a moderate length book that usually requires a few sittings to complete, but Selene’s last 100 or so pages are so engrossing that they will definitely make one read those to finish, regardless of the lateness of the hour. Having closed the book, it’s the kind of novel that lingers for quite some time in one’s mind. Finally, Justice has introduced another charming aspect of the novel. Readers and book club members would likely spend many thoughtful hours debating its ending.
Reviewed By: Waheed Rabbani, author of “Doctor Margaret’s Sea Chest,” available at Smashwords.com.
 Ref: www.firstshowing.net/2009/05/17/cannes-2009-review-alejandro-amenabars-agora/
(reviewed the day of purchase)