Based on true events, David Rocklin’s sweeping second novel conveys the complex speech of bodies and art through beautiful prose. This story of a forbidden bond is compelling and tender, revealing the language of love that is often silent.
After the 1868 war between British forces and the Ethiopian Empire (Abyssinia), Prince Alamayou, the son of the emperor Tewedros, is taken to Windsor under the wing of Queen Victoria. Philip Layard, a doctor’s apprentice who met Alamayou as he was escaping the flames of his burning home, travels to England with him and becomes his companion to help him understand the court’s culture. Although Philip doesn’t speak any Amharic (the language of Abyssinia), he and Alamayou find that words aren’t necessary. They communicate with gestures and through Alamayou’s paintings, finding a love they are careful to hide. Alamayou’s artwork captures the attention of the queen, who is mourning her late husband. Alamayou and Victoria form an unlikely friendship, but once he starts to use English, it is clear he will not play the “grateful foreigner” role. When Parliament wants to try Alamayou for his father’s crimes, Alamayou’s friends must find a way to convey his innocence to the court. All the while, the two men wonder if they’ll have to separate from the home they’ve found in each other.
In this important novel, Rocklin captures the raw emotions surrounding the era’s realities of sexuality, gender and race, and the fear of losing everything. Though Rocklin stays in the heads of his characters a bit too much, this is historical fiction at its most delicate, revealing a desire for history to be reversed, to undo the damage of privilege and xenophobia.
Readers will feel present with Alamayou and Philip in this heartbreaking, stirring portrait.