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Palace of the Drowned


Palace of the Drowned

From Christine Mangan, the bestselling author of TANGERINE, comes PALACE OF THE DROWNED, an atmospheric literary thriller set in gorgeous, dangerous historic Venice.

When prim, stoic Frances Croy set out to write her first novel after the end of the war and the death of her parents, she felt nothing but an innate desire --- a sudden, gripping need --- to write. In less than a year, she had an enthusiastic offer from a publisher and the promise of a dazzling, star-studded future ahead of her. Sure enough, the praise for her book was exuberant and far-reaching, but since then her fame has dwindled. Her fourth novel has just been released to less-than-stellar reviews, and even her beloved editor, Harold, seems to be losing faith in her.

"PALACE OF THE DROWNED is full of gorgeous, rich descriptions of Venice and a surprising, tension-filled friendship. A mesmerizing literary thriller akin to REBECCA and THE SECRET HISTORY, it is sinister, beguiling and ghostly."

Desperate to emulate the iconic author Emily Brontë, Frances --- Frankie --- reads every last review of her book, until she encounters one that guts her. In a frank but sentimental tone, the review describes the joy the reviewer felt at discovering Frankie’s first book...and the utter disappointment and lack of substance that have come with every one of her novels thereafter. Crumbling under the weight of the pressure put upon her by Harold and herself, and still reeling from the harsh, almost personal review, Frankie goes apoplectic at a cocktail party at The Savoy one evening, an event that nearly costs her her career, reputation and sanity. She then disappears from the spotlight, much like the famous Agatha Christie.

When we meet Frankie, the year is 1966, and she has ensconced herself in her friend’s abandoned palazzo in Venice, the city of water, Shakespeare and a spirit of endurance. Horrified by her behavior and near-mad with the need to revitalize her career, the Frankie we meet is put-together but fraught. A simple, low-maintenance woman, she has found herself a bit too adaptable to the loneliness that comes with retreating to a city where she knows no one. She has developed a careful routine, and though she is eager for her friend Jack, the owner of the palazzo, to join her, she has grown content with her isolation, reveling in her newfound freedom to descend into her thoughts. And then she meets Gilly.

One day, while walking through Venice, a young girl in a trendy, far too short dress calls out to Frankie, claiming to be the daughter of an editor at Frankie’s publisher. Gilly is precocious and brash, far more confident than she has any right to be. Frankie is immediately turned off by her, but there is something appealing about finally being known by someone in Venice. Although Frankie tries very hard to turn her away, Gilly has an almost supernatural ability to pop up where she is least expected.

Before long, the two are venturing to cafés, bars, parties and even the opera. But no matter how much time they spend together, Frankie never feels totally at ease with Gilly. She is mercurial,  arrogant and headstrong, yet also naive and vulnerable. Even worse, she seems to know things about Frankie that she shouldn’t. In her own vulnerable state, Frankie cannot be sure what is true and what isn’t. But when she learns that Gilly is also a writer, her past comes rushing very close to her present. And when Venice suffers catastrophic flooding, Frankie must wade through a series of lies and shocking revelations to discover the truth about Gilly and her own future as a writer.

PALACE OF THE DROWNED is a heady, atmospheric novel --- at times so thick with detail and a sense of place that the narrative is almost inaccessible. So much of the book is neither plot- nor character-driven, but rather propelled by the anxious, paranoid thoughts of Frankie, that it can be difficult to find a stronghold early on. Frankie is not a likable character, but she is certainly a compelling one. Although her anxiety and confusion can be stifling, Mangan is able to unlock an entire world of choices, fears and traumas in her head.

This is a decidedly gothic novel, highly literary and steeped in references and allusions to classic literature, which may turn off some readers. But when the plot kicks off about halfway through, it becomes propulsive. With so much of the story occurring in Frankie’s head, the sudden shift to real danger and conflicts feels like the ultimate climax. And when Gilly’s true identity and motives are revealed --- along with the response from Frankie --- the novel becomes as fast-paced and creepy as the best contemporary thrillers. With moody, damp and sultry off-season Venice creeping on the edges of every page, the already taut plot becomes even richer in dread and a sense of foreboding. Mangan’s descriptions of Venice --- beautiful, historic, crumbling and full of surprises --- really flesh out the melodrama. In fact, I’m certain that this book could not work in any other city.

Though slow to start, PALACE OF THE DROWNED is full of gorgeous, rich descriptions of Venice and a surprising, tension-filled friendship. A mesmerizing literary thriller akin to REBECCA and THE SECRET HISTORY, it is sinister, beguiling and ghostly.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 26, 2021

Palace of the Drowned
by Christine Mangan