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Review: Ascension, by Gregory Dowling
St. Martin’s, 2015. 298 pp. $26

Alvise Marangon doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a perfect spy. He thinks he’s the perfect cicerone, who guides English tourists through his native mideighteenth-century Venice, showing them the architecture and history or the gaming tables and brothels, depending on their taste. Alvise even speaks fluent English, having spent many of his formative years in London, and he has a prodigious memory for useless facts guaranteed to fascinate the occasional British clergyman come to sneer at (and be secretly thrilled by) the popish decadence they think is Venice.

The return of the Bucentaur to the Molo on Ascension Day by Canaletto, 1730 (courtesy the Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Trouble is, cicerones don’t earn much, and though Alvise has developed a working partnership with Bepi, the gondolier with whom he splits his fees, he’s perennially short of cash. But he has two qualities in play from the first sentences of this beguiling, atmospheric thriller, and so long as he gives them free reign, adventure will never be far behind. To wit: Alvise shoots his mouth off and indulges his impetuous curiosity. And in Venice, where half the populace is watching the other half, those habits will get you in a heap of trouble, pronto, for the secret service is everywhere.

The story begins as Alvise and Bepi accompany two Englishmen to their hotel. The younger visitor is the proverbial wastrel, bent on losing his money at the gaming tables and in the fleshpots, whereas his companion, a tutor entrusted with his scholarly and moral education, is supposed to apply restraint. To Alvise, the pair seem typical of other visitors:

The young man looked amiable enough; he was gazing around at the scene with frank interest. Presumably all very different from the decorous orderliness of his home, where his mother would have bidden him farewell with a stately bow of the head and his father with a manly handshake. Here at Fusina, a family of Venetians were exchanging raucous shouts, hand-slaps, kisses and lively embraces with relatives who had crossed the lagoon to meet them. Gondoliers and servants in bright liveries were transferring parcels and trunks to waiting boats and yelling at one another for no apparent reason, and across the lagoon the towers and domes of Venice shimmered in the golden haze of spring sunlight. The scene appeared to fluster the tutor. . . .

And yet, appearances deceive. Rather quickly, Alvise senses that Shackleford, the tutor, has less than a passing familiarity with his profession, and that the visitors have come to Venice for a singular purpose other than sightseeing. Naturally, Alvise does his best to learn what they’re after, but when unknown intruders ransack the Englishmen’s baggage, and Shackleford disappears only to be found dead, the cicerone winds up in jail for his troubles. Since no Venetian sparrow falls without the knowledge (if not consent) of the secret service, they take a keen interest in the young tourist guide.

From then on, Alvise’s in for the ride of his life–and so is the reader. Dowling knows Venice intimately–he’s lived and taught there more than thirty years–so you can hear, see, smell, and taste the city in all its finery and decay. But there’s atmosphere, and then there’s atmosphere. The second-most important character in Ascension, after Alvise, is Venice, in its love of spectacle and gossip; intrigue around every corner; the delight in masks and concealment; the squalor, magnificence, and corruption. Dowling casts his Venice as a place where performers who know their role are the ones to succeed. Sure enough, Alvise has his theatrical gifts, which is why the secret service wants to talk to him.

But nothing comes easily, and “no; and furthermores” spring up like mushrooms. (Risotto con funghi, anyone?) From a forbidden, seditious book to a Rosicrucian cult to an eccentric nobleman nursing a grudge to a theater to the state shipbuilding apparatus, Alvise must bluff his way into and out of danger–and of course, getting in sometimes proves all too easy. But what he discovers is nothing less than a threat to the Serene Republic itself, timed to take place on the celebrations surrounding the Feast of the Ascension.

My only quibble about the novel is the nifty, not to say incredible, way in which Alvise escapes certain physical constraints. But I don’t think anyone will mind; I didn’t. Ascension is not only good fun, I note an undercurrent of political commentary that seems topical–the desire, in certain right-wing quarters, for strongman rule to create fear and respect among the “rabble.”

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.