‘La Serenissima’ a city of masks…

The Hourglass by Liz Heron

La Fenice in 2005 – © A.Gaskell

People pass by on the fondamenta, a canal’s breadth away, and hear the strains of Mozart through the open window. An old recording, its tempo fast, the trio of singers still clear, the insistence on women’s faithlessness unmistakable behind the music’s effervescence.

È la fede delle femmine
Come l’araba fenice…

A constant woman? As mythical as the phoenix!

The quote above, from this novel’s prologue, including a line from Cosi Fan Tutte, fairly sums up the subtitle of this novel – “A Story of Love &Transience, Opera & Venice.” It was all of those, and more.

Seeing the word ‘fenice’ also reminded me that Venice’s famous opera house La Fenice (right) burned down three times, latterly in 1996, it reopened in 2004 – but sadly I didn’t get to go inside on my trip to Venice a year later – something for the future perhaps, for I’d certainly like to return to Venice. The primary timeline of this novel is set in 2000, so before that third reopening.

Paul Geddes arrives in Venice where he hopes to discover information about a 19thC opera singer, Esme Maguire. He is fascinated by the “historical richness” of the fin-de-siècle times she sang in, but evidence of her career is proving hard to come by. Eva Forrest is the widow of a collector of opera memorabilia, and Paul has come to Venice to meet her and, he hope, get access to her husband’s papers, and Eva agrees to bring him the first batch to examine. Paul is confused by the papers for they begin in the 1680s…

The text begins to alternate between 2000 and times past. Back in the 1680s, we meet Elena, a young singer of promise, who meets and falls for fifteen-year-old Lorenzo. He falls for Elena likewise, but this fleeting passion can never be consummated – they are destined for other lives, but over the years she will yearn for him. Elena survives a life-threatening fever due to a special medicine in a blue bottle administered by a stranger, a doctor, her mother said. She recovers her strength and becomes the singer she was destined to be, travelling across Europe, she marries, sings all over the place and her mother and beloved sister eventually die. In 1750 she has become Elise Muteo and returning to Venice has another life.

Paul is even more confused by what he is reading in the papers Eva gives him, he appears to be reading about a woman who doesn’t age, who is like a phoenix, being reborn with a new name. What is Eva’s purpose in supplying him with this fiction, and where is Esme in this story?

I did wonder whether I should give away that Elena and Elise are one and the same. But the novel’s blurb does this, and from the moment that Elena takes the strange doctor’s medicine at around page thirty, we’re part of the conspiracy, so to speak. The questions are over what is real, and what is fiction, and what Paul makes of it all? I couldn’t possibly comment further on that!

Cueros – a Venetian mask shop – © A.Gaskell 2005

Paul and Eva are also falling in love, although Eva always seems reluctant to commit. Their relationship is developed with intelligence, slow-burning initially, it’s certainly not all plain sailing and there is always this tension between them, which grows to a climax in the closing stages of the novel.

Venice is famed for its masks – particularly during the annual carnival before Lent, which has been going on and off since the mid-1100s. Although the carnival doesn’t play a part in the plot of this novel, masks do in Elena’s changes of name through the ages, and so it is entirely appropriate that the cover of this book features some splendid examples.

The dual timeline works really well, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Marina Fiorato’s The Glassblower of Murano (reviewed here) which also has modern and 17thC timelines and is set in the Veneto. Often I prefer one strand over the other, (I preferred the historical strand of the Fiorato). Heron’s timelines balance each other well, but the contemporary one perhaps just edged it for me, largely because of its portrait of modern Venice as a place to live in.

Heron’s style has an intensity, amplified by the lack of he said/she saids in the dialogue which is simply signposted with a dash, this keeps you on your toes. This tale of reinvention and love will appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a twist, or reading about Venice, the city which, arguably, is the real star of this novel be it in 2000, 1680, or anywhere in between. I’ll look forward to reading Heron’s next novel.


Source: Review copy as part of The Hourglass blog tour – Thank you.

Liz Heron, The Hourglass (Unbound, 2018), paperback original, 254 pages. Buy at Amazon UK below (affiliate link)

4 thoughts on “‘La Serenissima’ a city of masks…

  1. This sounds fun! I used to love books about Venice when I was a teenager. I went there at a similar time to you – 2006 – and would love to go back. I feel like I’ve already guessed the twist in this one, though…

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