Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Coin of Carthage is the perfect complement to a novel such as Durham's Pride of Carthage, which treats Hannibal's war against Rome from the viewpoint of central players in that great drama. Bryher's novel focuses instead on a handful of ordinary people who must survive as best they can in the spaces between the shattering events of that war. The story begins with a Greek trader who finds reason to regret his first attempt to trade with the invading Carthaginians. It soon branches off to involve a wounded Roman soldier he helps and his family. Along the way the trader comes face-to-face with Hannibal himself, though just for a moment before he scurries back to safety at the margins of the continuing war. The narrative eventually shifts to another trader, a friend of the first, who makes a more emphatic crossing of lines by taking up residence in Carthage. That position becomes untenable, and he makes bold moves to extricate himself. Between them, Bryher's people manage to observe, from up close or afar, various ebbs and flows of Hannibal's career, from his victories in southern Italy to his banishment after defeat.
The fate of the brilliant general is, like the travails of our leaders today, mostly in the background as the author's believable characters try to adapt to a world skewed by a long war. Bryher's artistry shows itself in the economical crafting of their personalities, the swift strokes that sketch the shape of full, real lives that extend beyond the pages of the novel. It is a poignant look at the choices people must make when ordinary life is poised on the edge of catastrophe, and is far more moving than the usual work of historical entertainment. The Coin of Carthage is my favorite Bryher novel of those I've read so far, a work of deep human interest with substantial literary merit. (1963, 240 pages)More about The Coin of Carthage at Powell's Books or Amazon.com