I very much enjoyed Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, and was looking forward to reading her second, Palace of the Drowned. As in her first book, Palace of the Drowned features a female character abroad in a modern historical setting, and an element of taut mystery.
Forty-two-year-old novelist Frances Croy, known as Frankie, is ‘working to leave the previous year behind’, and has escaped to Venice. Here, living in a crumbling but charming palazzo belonging to friends, who turn up some way into the narrative, Frankie ‘finds comfort in the emptiness of Venice in winter, in the absence of others.’ Set during the historic flood of 1966, the worst which was ever experienced in the city, 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.’
Palace of the Drowned opens in Rome in the November of 1966, where Frankie has found herself after the events in Venice: ‘She wondered what the guard might see if he were to return her gaze – an innocent tourist momentarily overcome by the beauty of Rome, or something closer to the truth.’ After this short chapter, the narrative shifts back to October in Venice. The sense of place which Mangan builds is striking: ‘It was hypnotic, the lapping of the green water up and over the cobbles, the smell of brine surrounding her, so that instead of taking a step back, she had moved forward, as if to welcome it. The spell was broken only when a local had appeared in one of the windows, calling out something to her in Venetian.’
I really enjoy the attention which the author pays to small details; for example: ‘Frankie felt suddenly prim, older than her years, with her short blonde wisps of hair pinned tightly back, kirby grips scraping against her scalp, her face bare except for some hastily applied eyeliner.’
Soon after she arrives, without her friend who was supposed to be travelling with her in tow, Frankie meets Gilly, who introduces herself as the daughter of a ‘publishing acquaintance’.
As in Tangerine, Mangan builds tension with a great deal of skill. Each sentence is taut and carefully crafted, particularly as the narrative builds to its climax: ‘It happened quickly then. The feeling of something around her throat, the grip tightening so that she could not breathe… She needed an exit – a chance to catch her breath, to let her skin cool, for already she could feel it, the sharp pinpricks of heat as they crept across her skin, first on the inside of her elbows and towards her wrists, and then on her back, her chest, crawling up, reaching for her throat.’
I believe that Mangan is quite an underrated writer. I hadn’t heard anything about this novel until I spotted it on my library’s website, and I remember next to no coverage of Tangerine upon its publication, either. Palace of the Drowned really drew me in, and I was keen to keep turning the pages and uncover the mysteries of this cleverly crafted novel. The characters Mangan has created are excellently developed, and the scenes their actions play out against are strongly imagined. A real strength of Palace of the Drowned is in its immaculate pacing, and it kept me guessing throughout.