eerie | stylish | disorienting | atmospheric | seductive
what it says on the cover …
In Venice, Frances Croy is working to leave the previous year behind: another novel published to little success, a scathing review she can’t quite manage to forget, and, most of all, the real reason behind her self-imposed exile from London: the incident at the Savoy.
Sequestered within an aging palazzo, Frankie finds comfort in the emptiness of Venice in winter, in the absence of others. Desperate to rediscover the success of her first novel, the one by which all her other work has been judged, she attempts to return to the page – ignoring the strained relationship with her best friend, the increasing phone calls from her editor, demanding the final book of her contract, and the growing fear that the end of her career is imminent.
And then Gilly appears.
A young woman claiming a connection from back home, one that Frankie can’t quite seem to recall, Gilly seems determined for the two women to become fast friends. Frankie finds herself equally irritated and amused by the strange young woman before her – but there’s something about her that continues to give Frankie pause, that makes her wonder just how much of what Gilly tells her is actually the truth.
Those around Frankie are quick to dismiss her concerns, citing her recent fragile state and what took place that night at the Savoy. So too do they dismiss Frankie’s claims that someone is occupying the other half of the palazzo, which has supposedly stood empty since after the war. But Frankie has caught Gilly in numerous lies, has seen the lights across the way, has heard the footsteps too-and what’s more, knows she isn’t mad.
Set in the days before and after the 1966 flood – the worst ever experienced by the city of Venice – the trajectory of the disaster that forever altered the city mirrors Frankie’s own inner turmoil as she struggles to make sense of what is and is not the truth, ultimately culminating in a tragedy that leaves her questioning her own role and responsibility – as well as her sanity.
PUBLISHED: 3rd June 2021
SHELF: Suspense | Mystery
AUTHOR: Christine Mangan
PUBLISHER: Little Brown
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | Audiobook
my review …
Ever since I read Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, back in 2018 I’ve been prowling the book-o-sphere for news of another book. Her gift for creating a stylish, atmospheric and influential setting, and a quietly simmering tension that’s been likened to Patricia Highsmith, rendered me a huge and effusive fan of her work. Since I learned of that longed-for second novel, Palace of the Drowned, I’ve been beside myself waiting to read it. Thanks to NetGalley, for making this reader’s wish come true!
I’m not going to write about the plot of the story as the book’s own synopsis (above) covers this quite effusively, and I’m not a fan of spoilers. For me to add anything else about the finer points would definitely stray into that territory, and taint your enjoyment of the various mysteries yet to reveal themselves to you.
My review focuses instead on the reader-relationship I developed with this book, because (to me) Christine Mangan is quite a seductress with her words. Their cadence and weave are placed with impeccable care and attention, evoking a wonderfully hypnotic narrative. With both her books I’ve found myself utterly immersed in her settings, both in terms of their geography and their era. To borrow (and paraphrase) a wonderful line I read within this novel; the story unwinds itself within me.
The setting for Palace of the Drowned is a jaded but elegant Venice, not the glossy romanticised city of our tourguide-engorged expectations. It brought an authentic, faded grandeur to the backdrop that I found inescapably hypnotic. Even the party that Gilly coaxes Frankie to had a hauntingly out-of-time, fever-dream quality to it. The sights, sounds, smells and sensations are rendered with a bewitching clarity; I’ve never been to Venice but since starting this book it’s been added in big capital letters to my bucket list. I’m now yearning to experience the bustling markets, to scoff the delicious local krapfen pastries in a café overlooking one of the many campo, to sip red wine outside Frankie’s favourite bacari, to watch the golden hour (and the blue hour), to lose myself in the twisting streets and alleys and dead-ends, to be swaddled by the rolling fogs and all-consuming silent darkness of the uniquely Venetian nights. These details – and more – launch 1960s Venice out of the pages and into your mind’s eye with incredibly clarity; the gondolas and canals and lagoon are all part of the setting, but the author relies on her reader’s awareness of these landmarks, using them symbolically to create a mood, or elicit a low-level crackle of claustrophobic entrapment.
As central characters go, Frankie is a bold choice – she’s prickly, secretive and solitary, making it difficult for the reader to connect with her. Her complexities are deepened further by her unpredictability and paranoia … and one or two episodes that make it clear she’s not the most reliable narrator. Frankie’s irascible nature is offset nicely by the cheerful and outgoing Gilly, and although it took me a while to settle into their unlikely connection, I enjoyed the contrast they brought to the story. However, secrecy was a trait common to both characters, and whilst this forms the crux of the tension within the novel, there were occasions when I became a little frustrated by it.
There’s a foreboding sense of watchfulness throughout the plot, one that’s brought to bear both by the book’s other characters, and the palazzo itself. For a private character such as Frankie, this adds stifling touch of noir to the plot, albeit one that sadly loses its potency when she heads back home to London. Frankie is in Venice ostensibly to focus on recreating the magic of her first, highly-acclaimed novel, but the solitude and privacy she longed for is punctured by Maria; the surly housekeeper, and the mysterious inhabitant of the neighbouring apartment. Whilst the city starts to assert itself as Frankie’s muse, the harrying phone calls from her editor, Harold, and the well-meaning – albeit misguided – enquiries of her friend, Jack (she/her!), combined with Gilly’s mercurial presence all conspire against Frankie’s composition.
When I wrote my review for Tangerine, I summed it up as follows: “This is what I would call a quiet suspense; it’s been elegantly written with a light touch, and the slow-burn style that reminds me of some of Hitchcock’s films … you know there are going to be creepy moments that give you goosebumps, but it’s delivered modestly and without fanfare … it’s an homage to 1950’s noir.” I adored the book for those qualities. Palace of the Drowned has taken the quiet lack of fanfare to another level. The smouldering, low-level sense of unease is even less distinct, ebbing and flowing to a degree that the goosebumps I so craved from this novel didn’t get the opportunity to really make themselves felt. I know I keep harking back to Tangerine, but I’m finding it hard not to hold the two novels up for comparison. This extreme subtlety, combined with a character set I struggled to connect with, offset the genuine enjoyment I’d felt for many other elements of the book; the setting, atmosphere, and it’s struggling-author plot line were all superb and held so much promise, as did the hauntingly fatalistic history of the Palazzo itself.
Whilst there is a degree of ‘historical’ to this novel, I’ve not read it as a work of historical fiction in its purest form as the era is really just a contextual setting rather than the reason the novel came into being. The vernacular, styles and social details all help to enhance an unfamiliar backdrop, with a beautiful visual imagery that’s powerful enough to convince me that – in the right hands – we humans are capable of time travel.
Palace of the Drowned is undoubtedly going to be much talked about. Whilst my experience with this book has very different to the first novel, I hugely enjoyed giving myself up to the author’s wonderful knack for transporting her readers into a waking dream.
If you’ve not yet read Tangerine – the author’s stunning, superbly tense debut novel, set in 1950’s Tangier – then I recommend you cancel all your other reading plans and get your hands on a copy. It’s absolutely sublime. It’s a book I’d read again in a heartbeat. The perfect sultry summer novel that begs to be read from behind a pair of stylish sunnies, preferably with a glamorous sun hat, and a glass of Moroccan mint tea at your side. Here’s a link to my review.
Thank you to the publishers, LittleBrown, and NetGalley for granting me this copy of Palace Of The Drowned in return for an honest review.
If this book sounds like one you’d love to read too, here’s a selection of purchase links:
• To buy direct from the author/publisher, click ☞ here
• To support independent local bookshops, click ☞ here
• To feed your Waterstones ‘plus’ loyalty card, click ☞ here
• And of course, here is the ubiquitous Amazon link
Christine Mangan has her PhD in English from University College Dublin, where her thesis focused on 18th-century Gothic literature, and an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Southern Maine. Her first novel, Tangerine, was an international bestseller and is soon to be a major motion picture starring Scarlett Johansson.
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