Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs is Verity Holloway’s debut novella. Its protagonist is Saint Silvan, the incorruptible martyr who lies preserved in a bower under the altar of the Church of Saint Blaise in Dubrovnik, Croatia, "lifeless yet deathless also" (p. 6). All that we—and indeed the saint himself—know about him at the beginning of the story is what the sign for tourists tells us: that he was probably Roman, and probably martyred in the 4th century AD. With global climate change causing incessant rains and floods, and inhabitants of Europe's lowlands being evacuated as familiar coastlines disappear and mountains are transformed into islands, visitors to the church increasingly have one question for Saint Silvan: "If this is the end of the world, [. . .] will you tell us?" (p. 7). And he cannot promise them apocatastasis: in this reversed version of the salvation promised us by the church, as Holloway tells us, "on a long enough timescale, Man never really gets away with anything" (p. 113).
A martyr on display during the daytime, at night Silvan works as a sort of Avon lady to the other incorrupt saints of the world, supplying St. Bernadette of Lourdes with nail polish, St. Deodatus of Nevers (who has been reduced to a skull with a crown) with whitening toothpaste and metal polish, and St. Valerius in Weyarn with cologne. To accomplish all of this, he travels around the world using Cryptspace (p. 8), the back stairs of the preserved dead. It's described as an otherworldly space open from dusk till dawn, which the dead can use to visit each other in their respective crypts all over the world. The beauty products themselves, which promise to "[breathe] new life into age-old faith" (p. 11), are supplied by an immortal dandy of ambiguous gender, who is introduced as Az and who, when Silvan asks, "What are your preferred pronouns, Az?" assesses Silvan and proclaims, "then we shall be male together".
Az gives a shake of his tail feathers, and if I’m not mistaken, the width of his hips decreases and he gains a few inches in height, making us eye-to-eye. (p. 28)
But having a fallen angel for a business connection is hardly Silvan's only problem as he starts paying regular visits to the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, who, obviously not being a saint, falls outside his usual range of customers, which makes the incorruptible saints of the world rather sceptical about him, to say the least. But Lenin's body is preserved, and Silvan is curious about this job, so he takes it up. His new client challenges him: "But you? You here, with your girl’s clothes and your soft hands? What have you done to deserve the admiration of those who lay eyes upon your remains?" (p. 23)
Lenin also questions the whole beauty business, even going as far as using Bible quotes to show Silvan what a hypocrite he is being, and not only from a Bolshevik point of view. But the character of Silvan, however naïve he may be, is also consistent and holds on to his opinion that he’s doing God’s work, helping to preserve and elevate martyr's relics and thus give hope and affirmation to increasingly desperate believers. Silvan provides a contrasting perspective on religion and its function for society, while Lenin keeps criticising the Roman Catholic church’s pomp in times of famine, and the escapism provided by religion when humanity might be better served by taking action. Sometimes both of them seem to have a point. To me, their conversations and disputes are the highlight of the book.
When Lenin tells him, "Like most purely decorative things, Silvan, you are empty on the inside" (p. 59), Silvan finds it difficult to defend himself. The accusation keeps gnawing at him. After all, he only remembers some fragments of his life before death and is forced to rely on the vague information on the sign in front of his shrine: he may have been a Bishop, martyred "precisely sometime in the fourth century" (p. 24). But who would make such a young man a bishop?
As the naïve Silvan starts to remember more and more of his past, Holloway unveils another plotline, which is the strong point of her writing. She seems to be very much at home in historical fiction, approaching the genre via her work in historical non-fiction, and vividly describes detailed and obviously well-researched scenes of life in ancient Rome. At times I found myself googling to try and catch her out (Did Roman men actually have underwear? And if so, what kind?), but it turns out she has done her homework, and then some. And she is definitely not handling her protagonist with kid gloves! As he finds out more and more about what really happened to him—What if he isn't a real martyr? What if he wasn’t even a Christian?—things get quite graphic.
Stylistically, I'm torn between two opposing impressions. On the one hand, Holloway's meticulous descriptions don’t really leave much to the imagination. Az's introduction, for example, seems a little too transparent and is followed by a lengthy passage on angels and Hell, when the readers could very easily come to the same conclusions about his identity without all of the infodump. On the other hand, the curiosities we encounter along the way are really worth a closer look. We get to see an anatomical Venus, and hear about Saint Rita of Cascia, the Guardian Saint of Desperate and Impossible Cases whose incorrupt body is said to move in its glass case; Saint Denis, who is said to have walked six kilometres with his severed head tucked under his arm, only stopping once to rinse it in a stream; and several historical shams, including a pumice stone that someone tried to pass of as a holy relic, i.e. Saint Peter’s calcified brain. Holloway’s attention to detail also adds a factor of humanity to the dialogues. Silvan’s identity is treated with the same care as that of Az, rendering him fluid and multifaceted—and thus more realistic: he confesses to having been in love with a Roman girl (pp. 50-51), and he finds himself attracted to Az, who has chosen to be male, and who is also "a fallen angel, a rebel against God" (p. 71). Rebellion turns out to be a recurring theme that does a lot to connect the plotlines and lends a bit of extra pizzazz to Silvan's dialogues with Az and Lenin, constantly making him (or at least tempting him to) reassess his role in society:
"You [. . .] made something of yourself. A bit like I did."
I blink back surprise. "You fell from heaven."
"But the fall," [Az] says, "was a teacher." (p. 72)
"I am a lowly slave, Mister Lenin."
"Must it remain that way?" (p. 110)
Paraphrasing the famous quote from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (Shays' Rebellion, a sometimes-violent uprising of farmers angry over conditions in Massachusetts in 1786, prompted Thomas Jefferson to express the view that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing" for America), Holloway’s supernatural advocatus diaboli tells us, "A bit of pandemonium now and then is good for the soul, I’d say" (p. 141). And the very last part does indeed surprise the readers with a couple of well-executed twists and turns that keep us turning the page and, on reaching the last one, leave us smiling.
If you like things that share the aesthetic of the Penny Dreadful TV series, with maybe a bit of the undead Jane Austen remix thrown in, you might like this book. It delivers a combination of well-researched historical fiction (at the centre of the plot) and the jumbled-up atmosphere of a cabinet of curiosities (in the frame story). And bit by bit, all the background info, all the saints' biographies and objects and myths encountered on the way, they fall into place. Whether you believe in the possibility of a clownfish in a glass bowl in ancient Rome or not, this novella is just about as beautifully crafted as its less human characters and makes for an enjoyable read.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.