Blurb: ‘No one in this city has believed in me for two thousand years. I’m unknown and unloved. And I’m very, very ill.’ He sighed, and the sound chilled her blood. ‘Give me your hand.’
Dionysus, god of wine and divine ecstasy, is reborn in modern Rome. He doesn’t understand how or why he’s come to be here – a pagan god in a city where he has no believers. But when he meets fifteen-year-old Grace during a chance encounter in the Ghetto, he realises he has found his first new follower.
This is the beginning of Grace’s secret life, as she and her friends overcome scepticism and fear to become his worshippers, drinking his wine and taking part in bacchanals across the city. As the melancholy god lives out his exile, his teenage followers find they have everything to lose. And after the first bloodshed, they know that there’s no turning back…
Alexandra Turney conjures a haunting nostalgia for the languid boredom of teenage summer holidays, crossed with a darker, more insidious restlessness that can only lead to madness, violence and worse.
The story unsettles on two layers. On the surface we have a mythological fairytale of young girls being led into danger by a shadowy (potentially evil, certainly alien) older male figure. At a deeper level perhaps we just have the hysteria of teenaged girls, overwhelmed by hormones, on the cusp of adulthood, eagerly grasping at pleasures desired, feared, but not yet understood. These two stories run concurrently and it is impossible to detect shifts between the two possibilities, especially as the climax builds and emotions run high.
There are scenes of graphic violence and sexual content, which may disturb some readers. For myself, I found these scenes surreal and dreamlike: simultaneously disturbing and dismissable. This mirrors the experience of our main character Grace as she struggles to understand the import of actions she can barely remember.
Dionysus is not just the god of alcoholic pleasure orgies, but the god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy, and those familiar with Grace’s study text The Bacchae will realise early on that this story is a classic Greek tragedy. Sure enough, we watch events spiral out of control as the primitive desires (fuelled by wine and lust) slowly override and erode the rational mind, social influence and moral conscience leading to the inevitable outcomes of death and madness.
Not an easy read, but a terribly compelling one. Down this way madness lies…
They stared at each other. Grace saw that his brown eyes were almost black, and felt a sudden chill come over her. She usually found dark eyes beautiful, but his were hollow, shallow – she didn’t know what, but something wasn’t right. His golden skin had a kind of pallor, and his lips were pale and dry. He must be ill. An alcoholic, she guessed wildly.
‘Don’t you need anything?’ Grace asked, preparing to make her escape as soon as she had done her charitable duty.
‘I want lots of things,’ said the man in his peculiar, lilting voice. ‘But I have everything I need.’
– Alexandra Turney, In Exile
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