Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den is one of the best pieces of historical fiction you’ll read this year, a brutally honest tale of survival and struggle centered around precisely the sort of voices that are so often left out the way we remember the past. And thanks to a rare bit of publishing kismet, its sequel The House with the Golden Door is hitting shelves just a few short months later, ready to once again dazzle us with its intricate, detailed recreation of life in ancient Pompeii.
And, for the record, it’s pretty darn successful. The rare sequel that’s as good as its predecessor but that doesn’t simply retread the emotional beats of the first book, instead pushing its story, its protagonist, and its audience’s emotions in uncomfortable and unexpected new directions. Emotionally complex and layered, The House with the Golden Door is unflinchingly honest in its storytelling and doesn’t require any of its characters to be perfect in order to deserve to have their voices heard. Because at the end of the day—these are people scrambling to survive in a world that has told them their lives don’t mean anything,
Amara may be able to win her freedom at the end of The Wolf Den but in many ways, she’s simply traded one kind of cage for another. Because although The House with the Golden Door may have (largely) left the brutal setting of the brothel behind, the world of the lupanar still looms large over its tale. Amara may no longer be enslaved and she may no longer technically work at The Wolf Den, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is free, or that she’s not still forced to trade her body for the promise of safety and security.
Installed in her titular house with the golden door as Rufus’s new mistress, Amara is haunted by her past, obsessively wondering about what’s happening back at the Wolf Den and struggling to fully extricate herself from the influence of the man who used to own her. As she learns what being a concubine means, she finds herself stuck in a strange liminal space—too well off to be trusted by the lowborn servants and slaves in her new home but not well off enough to be truly safe in her own person or possessions, she finds herself deeply lonely and missing the camaraderie she used to have with her brothel sisters. (As bad as it was, at least they had each other; in her new house, Amara has no one.)
Her precarious social status is a major throughline throughout the novel, leaving her at the mercy of a patron who slowly reveals himself to be almost as controlling and abusive as Felix, though much less overtly physically violent. Her constant awareness of Rufus’ desires impacts and informs almost every decision Amara makes, from the clothes she wears to the food she eats. (Rufus, you see, likes it when she’s a little skinnier than she should be and looks like a woman who needs rescuing.) Freedom, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily mean you have a lot more choices than you did before.
But many of the choices Amara does make are questionable moral ones—from buying slaves of her own to continuing to lend money (at a healthy rate of interest) to desperate women whose situations aren’t always that much better than her own used to be. But The House with the Golden Door doesn’t judge Amara for her choices, rather simply puts them in a context that allows us to understand why she would see them as necessary, in a specific moment, for her own survival. Watching Amara repeatedly harden herself is difficult and often heartbreaking, as she becomes colder, more calculating, and somehow even less trusting. And while her behavior can often be deeply frustrating, as a reader it’s hard not to feel intense sympathy for her position even as we desperately want her to be better than the circumstances in which she finds herself.
By the end of the novel, Amara is forced to make a final devastating choice, one that a less nuanced storyteller would likely condemn her for. But Harper’s writing is shot through with an innate understanding that for women like Amara, there often simply are no good choices, only the best of a slate of terrible options that allow her to survive long enough to get the chance to do it all over again. But that’s what Amara is, at heart—a survivor, even if it means she leaves a trail of broken promises and betrayals in her wake.
Several of the main characters from The Wolf Den play major roles in this sequel, including Victoria, Britannica, and Felix himself, who seems unable to let go of the whore that got away. Harper writes the fraught relationships between all these characters with great care and emotional nuance, conveying the often confusing and toxic mix of love and jealousy that exists between people after significant status changes and exploring the seemingly constantly shifting power dynamics between them. (The increased role for Britannica here is especially welcome, as the Briton possesses a very specific sort of ferocity that many of the novel’s other characters lack. I would read a spinoff novel about her in a heartbeat, is what I’m saying.)
Much like The Wolf Den, The House with the Golden Door is beautifully written, full of historical detail (most chapters open with a quote from the graffiti that still survives on Pompeii’s walls today) but with a fully contemporary narrative feel that understands the challenges historical women once faced aren’t so very different from the things their modern-day counterparts deal with now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.