“When I read that review, it was as if someone had printed all my worst fears, all my deepest secrets, for everyone to read.”
I’d never intended to visit Venice, but after reading Christine Mangan’s Palace of the Drowned, I can’t say that it sounds appealing. Mangan’s 1966 Venice is portrayed as a dismal place, rotting, smelly and miserable. But since our main character, Frankie Croy is depressed, perhaps, after all, it’s a state of mind. Frankie is a writer with a number of books under her belt.
Her second novel had sold well based on the success of the first, but her third had faltered, and it soon became apparent that this, her fourth and most recent, was destined for the same type of mediocrity.
Frankie’s first novel was the result of personal tragedy and mental anguish. Her ability to write (and subsequently publish) recuperated her life following WWII and the death of her parents. While it’s not explicitly stated, it becomes obvious that her fragile mental health is linked to her success as a writer. It’s as if her creativity is waning since her other novels have not had great success and she “could feel it, she thought: the end lurking just around the corner.” She’s sure that her publishing house is losing interest in her, but she still has a book left on her contract. Frankie “had always had a tendency to fixate, to obsess,” and then she reads a review written by J.L. The review is blunt and to the point: the new novel is “so apathetic, so resigned, so passive,” that J.L (whoever that is) wonders what on earth “happened” to the writer’s talent. Frankie’s publisher at first tries to reassure her and to brush off the review as nothing serious, but then he lets slip that Frankie’s work has become stale. Frankie takes the review personally. She’s angry and suggests that her next novel will be about the murder of a critic.
Frankie’s world begins to fall apart. Initially she tries to identify the reviewer, and the review continues to get under her skin; she can’t let it go. This shift in Frankie’s mental state culminates in a very public embarrassing scene in London, and she flees to her long-term heiress friend, Jack’s, palazzo, The Palace of the Drowned, in Venice to lick her wounds, hide and heal.
In Venice, she was allowed to be someone else. Someone who was, she often though, a version of her former self. She had read somewhere once that the fog in Venice obliterated all reflection.
Frankie is keeping to herself when she meets Gilly, a young woman who claims to know her. Frankie, who isn’t the friendliest person at the best of times, bristles at Gilly’s forwardness at first, but then begins to melt even though Frankie is fairly sure that Gilly is lying about knowing her. There’s something about Gilly that’s not quite right. She appears to be a young, almost giddy girl, a girl whose “life was filled with luck, filled with perfect moments by being somewhere at just the perfect time, by being the type of person to always say the absolute perfect things.” Yet there are glimpses of an agenda under the surface of Gilly’s desire to enter Frankie’s life: uncomfortable moments, manipulations.
Frankie had always trusted her instincts, and there was something now warning her against the girl watching her with an eagerness that continued to unsettle her.
Palace of the Drowned is an atmospheric novel. There’s Maria, the Danvers-esque housekeeper who doesn’t speak English, who may or may not be snooping in Frankie’s room. Then there are those noises in the deserted palazzo next door. And then what of Frankie’s mental state? There are hints of earlier issues–issues prior to the review that sent her over the edge. Is Frankie a reliable judge of character or reality any more? As one journalist said, is she losing the plot???
A terrible sense of dread and impending doom permeate this novel–from the rotting palaces, stinking water and the dreadful weather. The magnetic relationship between Gilly and Frankie, with its bizarre undercurrents is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, and so expect no easy answers here. The heavy fog of depression which seeps through every page combines with multiple vague mysteries to weigh down the plot at times, and the secondary characters are, unfortunately, vague and not that interesting. Ultimately the dark ending carries the tale to a satisfying, although ambiguous ending which made me wish I’d found the characters a bit more compelling.