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Review: Palace of the Drowned, by Christine Mangan
Flatiron, 2021. 272 pp. $28

It’s 1966, and Frances (Frankie) Croy has fled to Venice to hide. More than a decade has passed since her debut novel captured the London literary world, during which she’s published a string of failures. A particularly cutting review of her work has cast her writing style as a dinosaur whose long-deserved extinction can’t happen soon enough. A hypersensitive loner, Frankie has let that review get under her skin, believing — with some reason — that her editor shares the negative opinion.

At a publicity gathering for someone else, Frankie erupts violently, having misinterpreted postures and expressions around her as slights. The London tabloids eat this up, and Frankie just manages to avoid legal trouble. After a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital that does her no good and only spawns further gossip columns, she’s taken flight to Venice, where friends loan her a palazzo, known as the Palace of the Drowned.

The doge’s palace, Venice, November 1966, during a flood (unknown author; courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As you may have guessed, Frankie is quite the paranoid. But this novel operates under the old adage that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s after you. And much to her consternation, shortly after her arrival in Venice, a woman much younger than she accosts her, says they’ve met before, and declares herself an admirer of Frankie’s work, especially that debut novel.

Frankie’s certain she’s never met “the girl,” as she thinks of Gilly Larson (though she understands that descriptive is fast becoming déclassé) and wonders what her game is. Gilly fastens herself to Frankie like a leech, offering literary opinions she can’t seem to keep to herself, and which would appear to criticize Frankie’s work, except for that debut novel. To rephrase the adage: Just because a leech professes to like you doesn’t mean she won’t suck your blood.

So the game’s afoot, and a clever, well-crafted game it is. It’s not that Palace of the Drowned proposes a cat-and-mouse relationship between Frankie and Gilly. Rather, Frankie wonders whether that’s what they’ve got, or if she’s reading malign intent into innocent, if strange, behavior. Frankie goes back and forth, at times suspicious, at times grateful for Gilly’s companionship and generosity, from which she learns about the city she detested at first sight but has come to appreciate.

I like how Mangan taps into the pervasive fear belonging to people insecure in their accomplishments, especially when a seemingly more confident youngster comes along. I also like the way the narrative depicts an author fiercely anxious about her creative powers who fears she has only one thing to say and said it years ago. You don’t have to be a writer — or any form of artist — to put yourself in Frankie’s place.

That’s what saves the novel for me. The first hundred pages feel like a chore, because none of the characters appeal to me. Mangan has chosen to enact her tale with a brittle, difficult, even obnoxious cast. Frankie seems to care about no one but herself, and I don’t get why she instinctively pushes people away. Gilly’s self-righteous, intrusive, and controlling, too interested in what other people think of her to see them for themselves. Frankie’s friends, the ones who loan her the palazzo, strike poses I find tiresome, while her editor gives publishing a bad name (and makes a couple implausible moves).

Mangan’s assemblage does offer ample opportunity for conflict, therefore creating “no — and furthermore,” the essence of any thriller. She need not strain for plot points, because much of the story comes from within, and credibly so. You also don’t get too cozy with anyone, so you can readily believe them capable of just about anything. But if you’re like me, you cease to care, and only when Frankie’s vulnerabilities feel at all human, rather than merely repellent, do I latch on.

Palace of the Drowned is a literary thriller, and the prose does a fine job creating character and mood:

Before Venice, Frankie had never seen fog so thick.… Here, it rolled in discernible waves, curled around her ankles, so that she could feel it, engulfing her. The Venetian fog seemed capable of obscuring everything — and she had found a peculiar type of comfort in it, in being wrapped up, swaddled, and feeling as though a cloak of invisibility had been draped around her shoulders. It wasn’t just her sight that became affected — sound became muffled as well. Shapes no longer appeared rooted to anything.

Whether Palace of the Drowned will please you probably depends on your tolerance for its characters. Mangan’s a gifted author, and her psychological portrayals ring true. Yet this book is too cold for me to embrace.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in different form.