A 7-year-old girl may be the key to a supernatural mystery that began in the Middle Ages.
Temporarily leaving Brighton behind, Penny and Gideon Mantell travel to Venice to work on an archaeological dig on the island of Lazzaretto. Their daughter, Venetia, who was conceived in Venice, accompanies them on the return to the city, which evokes pleasant memories for the family. Over several days, three large chests are found at sea, all with female corpses inside—one with a brick in her mouth, one shackled by chains and one buried with an ancient mirror that faces down. After enrolling Venetia in a local school, Penny concentrates on cleaning the mirror, which is kept in the Mantell residence. But the mirror has deleterious effects on Venetia, who claims to see visions in its glassy surface. She also starts sleepwalking and takes to playing with a puppet that shares her name, speaking in a squeaky voice as she manipulates it. Although untrained in foreign languages, she’s somehow able to recite Latin phrases that might be incantations. Gideon favors a rational approach, while Penny, increasingly unnerved by her daughter’s eccentricities, consults a medium for answers. The story promisingly begins in a convent with an intriguing prologue involving the mysterious Zancani family and a sexually charged ceremony with unholy roots dating back to the 1500s. Penny and Gideon are well-drawn characters, and the state of their union—sometimes solid, sometimes shaky—rings true. Venetia, however, is not always believable as a 7-year-old—she notices, for example, that individuals invoke the sign of the cross when looking at her, and she physically assaults an adult—but this could perhaps be attributed to the influence of a more advanced spirit-world entity. At times, the book’s font changes inexplicably; it’s unclear whether this signals a passage of particular note or a simple formatting error. The novel is highly atmospheric, filled to the brim with Venetian locales and lifestyles, yet it’s missing the peerless economy and wrenching gut-punch of Don’t Look Now. Occasionally, a creepy scene will bring about goose bumps, as when Penny sees Venetia hovering an inch off the ground, but getting to this payoff requires navigating pages of tame exposition that, while interesting, is more travelogue than thriller. A vague uneasiness pervades much of the book for a frustrating sense that something—a jolt foreshadowing terrors just around the corner—might happen, but the too-long wait undercuts suspense.
A well-written tale with a luscious setting that would be more convincing and thrilling with more action in fewer pages.