Thursday, 24 September 2015

Wot I'm reading: Life (and Death) in Venice


Middle-aged schoolmistress Julia Garnet, grieving after the death of her long-term friend and flatmate (but not, we infer, her lover), moves to Venice with a six-month rental on a small apartment off the Grand Canal. Miss Garnet is a spinster, a Communist and an atheist. She very quickly falls in love - not once but twice.

Her first love, an art historian, proves to be an unwise choice. Her second love, depicted in painting and sculpture in various churches and galleries, is the Archangel Raphael who famously accompanied the apocryphal prophet Tobias across the land of Assyria to meet the demonically possessed woman he was destined to love.

Salley Vickers alternates the story of Miss Garnet and the people she meets in Venice with a re-telling in vernacular English of Tobias's ancient odyssey. And as the city with its canals casts a spell over Julia's heart, this biblical romance frees her spirit - her soul - from a dormancy that has lasted her entire life.

The writing of this beguiling novel is elegant but unfussy, the kind of writing, you feel, that Jane Austen might be producing if she were alive today. 'If you spend most of your life alone often you do not know that you are lonely.' Julia likes the fact that the Lord is 'Signore' to the Italians: 'how nice that God should be a humble mister!'

In contrast to Tobias's cinematically exotic adventures, events in contemporary Venice move at an unhurried pace, but Miss Garnet's 'awakening' makes her an endearing heroine, more likeable than lovable. Defying categorization, this is a spiritual quest that spans almost three millennia.

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