Ambition is a cornerstone of great historical fiction, and even novels whose premise exceeds their author’s grasp are exciting because of the nerve it takes to simply go for it. You have to be ambitious to chart the course of a piece of known history in a compelling new way, and you have to be even more ambitious to do so across several eras of human civilization in perhaps the most storied city in the history of the world.
That’s what Katy Simpson Smith does in her latest novel, The Everlasting, and the result is a rare book whose ambition is matched by its craft and emotional weight. Combining the gravity of history with the tribulations of faith and the wit and wisdom of Satan himself, this is a book that somehow retains its power even as it hops across time to tell four very different stories that nonetheless share a common, human heart.
Smith begins in modern-day Rome with Tom, a biologist whose body and soul seem to be failing him in a tumultuous time. Then she works backward to tell three more stories in three other phases of Rome’s immortal existence. From Giulia de’ Medici and her unwanted pregnancy, to a monk named Felix and his vigil over the corpses of his brothers in the Medieval era, to the tale of the defiant young girl named Prisca in the early decades of Christianity, each story weaves its own spell. There’s no weak link here, no character you’d rather leave out of this journey, because Smith’s prose is so precise and evocative that each narrative feels as precious as a holy relic.
Then there’s the cutting, heartbroken voice of Satan interjecting into each narrative, tying them all together with his own perception of human history and his own particularly bittersweet relationship with God.
The result of all these different threads is an exquisite tapestry of history, religion and heartbreak that’s perfect for historical fiction and fabulism fans alike.