Readers of Alison’s wondrous bringing to life of Ovid (The Love-Artist, 2001) will find here the same highly controlled lushness in a contemporary story that starts slowly but gains power.
In the manner of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, with its now-famous homage to Mrs. Dalloway, Alison’s story follows sets of characters whose lives parallel, cross, sometimes touch one another. The sheer variety of people at the start can be frustrating: It isn’t always simple to remember who’s who as aging art patron Oswaldo wakes up in Venice; cook and food scholar Max leaves London for New Orleans to take up a university post but, more, to court the sensuous but elusive set-designer Lucinde; as artist Lach, in New York, breaks up with artist Vera—and then, for separate reasons, both go to Venice (where Vera will become old Oswaldo’s portraitist); and as young and struggling architect Anton also heads for Venice, leaving behind his intellectually brilliant but almost intolerably sensitive wife, Josephine, just as she’s resorting to a fertility doctor’s unpleasant regimen—abdominal injections, for example—in a last despairing attempt to get pregnant. Alison’s imagery (as in the Metamorphoses itself) is the imagery of change, erosion, disappearance, and loss, as both Venice and New Orleans, cities on the sea, sink slowly, becoming more and more permeated with water. Josephine, in fact, is a researcher of the great river, the dynamics of its assault on the city—while Anton, in Venice, will get (and lose) the chance to build a villa on the water for Oswald. Much, indeed, will be lost, drowned, eroded, and washed away before the close—the last of many fetuses; one adult life; numerous hopes and ambitions both artistic and romantic, intellectual and emotional, even historic.
Ambitious, complex, challengingly intellectual—and yet Alison manages it all with a clarity, learnedness, and rigor that bring into being a creation of real beauty, albeit also of sorrow. Hers is a real and significant attempt, and a real achievement.