Book Review: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata (published in the UK & Australia as Ruso and the Root of All Evils)
Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2010
ISBN 9781608190478
Trade Paperback

“Is it true someone’s trying to bankrupt us?”

Lucius leaned back in their father’s chair and folded his arms. “If I were to say no,” he said, “and ask you to go straight back to Deva for the good of the family, would you do it?”

“I can’t,” Ruso pointed out. “I had to wangle months of leave to get here.”

“So you can’t go back to the Legion.” Lucius managed to look even more depressed.

“Arria says somebody’s applied for a seizure order.”

Lucius let out a long breath. “There’s a law somewhere,” he said, “that says you can’t take out a seizure order against someone who’s away from home on public service.”

Ruso began to grasp the nature of the problem. “Does that apply to an ordinary man in the army?”

“The last thing I would have done, brother, was to ask you to come home.”

“So it’s true then? We have a legal problem?”

“We do now,” said Lucius.

In Persona Non Grata, the third in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series set in second-century Roman Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British companion Tilla (also known as Darlughdacha of the Corionotatae among the Brigantes) travel to southern Gaul, summoned by an ominous letter that says only, “Lucius to Gaius. Come home, brother.” As their father’s heir and effective (if not necessarily effectual) paterfamilias, Ruso has known for some time of his family’s precarious financial situation, legacy of the massive debts their father incurred during his second marriage. Fearing the worst, Ruso arranges leave from his duties as surgeon to the XX Legion and hurries home.

When he arrives on the family estate a few miles outside Nemausus (modern-day Nîmes), Ruso finds the situation is much worse than he imagined, and that they are facing imminent seizure of everything they own. According to Roman law, the seizure order couldn’t go into effect so long as Ruso remained in Britain. Thus his homecoming is greeted not with open arms but consternation.

The threat of foreclosure soon turns out to be the least of Ruso’s problems, however, when the man who had filed the claim—who also happens to be married to Ruso’s former wife—dies by poisoning shortly after arriving to discuss settlement terms with Ruso.

Downie’s Medicus series are among the very few historical fiction books (set in a period I’m familiar with) I can read and enjoy without my historian’s hat on. Intellectually I know both Ruso and Tilla are far too modern in their sensibilities, but I don’t care. Downie’s flair for light comedy is one of her strengths as a writer and probably what draws me back to the series with each new book more than anything else; I was glad to see its return in Persona Non Grata after what seemed to be a bit of a dark turn in Terra Incognita.

Another of Downie’s strengths is in her two leading characters. Ruso is an appealing protagonist who seems cursed to live in a perpetual state of exasperation with everyone he knows, but while he is often the target of Downie’s humor he is never its butt. He is decent, fair, intelligent, and determined to get to the bottom of any mystery thrown in his path—a crucial development since Medicus, the first book, when he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into finding the murderer.

Tilla is likewise intriguing, never more so than when she is being Ruso’s chief cause of exasperation, though after three books she remains an enigma. Despite this, Downie deserves praise for the way she has subtly shown Tilla’s growing familiarity with Latin even while Roman culture remains completely foreign (and often incomprehensible) to her. Her impressions of southern Gaul, where Roman civilization was more thoroughly embedded than in her homeland were particularly insightful, just as her attendance at a clandestine gathering of the “followers of Christos” was both hilarious and perceptive in its observations. Early scenes with Tilla and Ruso’s family make for an interesting twist on the concept of othering, where the British character is the exotic foreigner:

“Gaius, dear, who is this?”

Glancing around at the assembled company, all now surveying the slender blond figure just inside the doorway, the absurdity of the notion that he would be able to slip Tilla into the household almost unnoticed became clear.

A small voice at nephew level announced, “She’s got a red face.”

“She’s got blue eyes.”

“Why is her hair like that?”

“Because she’s a barbarian, stupid!” explained one of the nieces.

“She’s British,” said Ruso, as if that explained not only her appearance but her presence.
“Can she talk?”

“Can we touch her?”

“Is she fierce?”

Later, when one of Ruso’s half-sisters, trying to persuade Tilla to join them on a shopping excursion, asks, “Don’t you have shops in Britain?” the other responds, “They probably don’t have money either.” It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a similar exchange in a modern English household with a foreign guest and nod knowingly.

The central mystery in Persona Non Grata—the identity of Severus’ murderer and the connection between his death and the disappearance of an extended member of Ruso’s family—is fairly insubstantial. That said, this is probably the most complex book in the series to date, reflecting Downie’s growing talent as a writer. Though I do find the Medicus series anachronistic at times, especially in its characterizations, Downie has clearly done her research, and she shares her broad knowledge of second-century Gallo-Roman civilization very ably, without resorting to the dreaded “infodump.” Through the eyes of Ruso and Tilla, and the inevitable culture clash engendered by their respective backgrounds and perspectives, the reader glimpses life in a typical Gallo-Roman household, the operation of an estate, commerce and business transactions in the second century, and life in a city far larger than anything Tilla would have experienced in Britannia, including the role of the circus as a vehicle for public entertainment, political maneuvering, and punishing criminals. Downie introduces each of these important aspects of Roman society smoothly and within the context of the larger story, yet doesn’t let them overshadow it.

Persona Non Grata is easily the best in the Medicus series to date. I’m already a fan, and seeing how much Downie has grown as a writer only makes me even more eager for future installments.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, August 2010, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.

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