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 Former Norwegian publisher Wiese gets into the act himself with his first novel--a strange mishmash that seems to be plotted along the boundary that separates magical realism from hagiography. Most of the action here takes place in church, or hard by. The narrator is a Vatican librarian, not a priest but still very much a man of the Church, whose work with rare manuscripts becomes unexpectantly relevant to contemporary affairs in 1989 when a Perugia church collapses during the ceremony of dedication, killing nearly 700 worshippers. The death count is so high partly as a result of the fame surrounding a Renaissance portrait of the Madonna and Child that hangs over the altar of the church, a portrait that had been discovered by the narrator only a few years before in an out-of-the-way corridor of the Vatican Library. Later, the narrator also discovers a 500-year-old manuscript that recounts the weird and tragic story of the painting's creation, a tale that itself becomes the bulk of the novel. Written by an anonymous 15th- century ``storyteller,'' the manuscript relates how the portrait was the work of an obscure artist's doomed love for his model, a beautiful country girl whose shadowy past was gradually brought to light with calamitous results. The later history of the painting and its owners, laboriously pieced together by the narrator, makes it sound more like the Hope diamond than the PietÖ, and it even begins to exert its curse upon the narrator himself, who manages to figure out what's going on and get out of the way in time. The ending, of course, is the beginning, which seems to be the finale of the Madonna's malevolence. Too spooky for words: The Borges-like intricacies of the narrative, with its spurious manuscripts and intellectual sleuthing, are ill-suited to the tale itself, which is basically a horror story. Subtlety becomes soporific rather than intriguing in this guise.

Pub Date: April 14th, 1996
ISBN: 1-86046-025-0
Page count: 160pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1996