“You’ll soon discover that coincidence simply does not exist in Venice.”
As I said in an earlier post on this blog, I very rarely branch out beyond a select group of authors. It usually takes a strong recommendation…or two, or three…from friends and trusted sources to get me to sample something startlingly new in books. This is the first leap into the literary unknown I have taken in many a year.
I’m glad I did. Because Elizabeth Segrave’s debut novel Memoria is a slightly uneven but thoroughly engaging effort, and one that garners my unhesitating recommendation for those who appreciate sweet, strange Twilight Zone-style fiction.
Violet Tenet seemingly leads a charmed life. She was able to attend a very prestigious liberal-arts college for her undergraduate and (currently) graduate work because of a full scholarship paid for by the mysterious and eccentric Mr. Brown, with whom she has never had any contact. Her studies have led her to the field of art history, and an extraordinary institution-sponsored opportunity to do several weeks of research in Venice. The novel starts as she arrives there with two professors and a host of students, including her best friend Liesel and puzzling heartthrob Tom Fielding, who sometimes knows more than can be easily explained and with whom Violet would very much like to (ahem) conduct an independent study in a very different field.
Violet hopes to spend her time in Venice researching and writing on the centuries-old Carnevale, the weeks-long masked festival that reached its peak when the Venetian Republic was at the very center of the European economic and cultural world. And on her first day in town, she runs across a picture of a unique mask in the archives…a rare golden mask encrusted with precious jewels, which has a history with one of the oldest and grandest families in Venice and which has been missing for decades. It would seem to be a heaven-sent research subject. So Violet dives in.
Little does she know that she is delving into a mystery which spans several centuries and seemingly the whole of Western Europe. It involves secret compartments, fantastic gadgets, and a remote manor in Scotland. That priceless mask has ties to a royal family, two murders, and Violet’s own mysterious ancestry. Of course, Tom Fielding is not only the key to the whole tangled affair, but at the center of it – in ways Violet simply is not prepared to expect, in ways which will change the course of her life. And, if she’s not careful, in ways which will end it.
Perhaps the best aspect of Memoria is its author’s powers of description. The entire first portion of the novel’s action (and much of the last part as well) takes place in Venice, one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Segrave is clearly very familiar with La Serenissima, and takes delight in guiding the reader through the city and aspects of its history, culture, and art, much of which is also crucial in driving the plot. Nor does the description flag when we change locations to Scotland, where perhaps the most crucial portions of the novel’s backstory are revealed. Readers who enjoy getting lost in the prose-pictures will find themselves as engaged as those who demand a forward-moving story with twists and reveals.
We spend all of our time in the company of Violet, who – refreshingly – is not a superbeing or a world-class anything, but simply a normal person with normal desires. If she is occasionally a bit cleverer than most of us would be in the same circumstances, it is not an unjustified cleverness. Segrave deserves a great deal of credit for developing and capturing the emotions of such a sympathetic protagonist. Violet makes our acquaintance as a young woman who just wants to write a good paper and have a little romance on the side during an exciting trip to one of the world’s most historic cities. She approaches the climax knowing that her entire life, and the lives of several people who died (or should have died) before she was even born, have been shaped so as to thrust her into a central role in a drama that might potentially threaten the very fabric of time. Never at any point along this journey is her character, or transition between states, anything less than believable.
The stakes I mentioned in the previous paragraph almost makes it sound like this is too ambitious a story for a first-time novelist. Sadly, this proves at points to be the case. Segrave begins the novel with very few missteps, seducing the reader into her world with confident prose and a slow but steadily-building narrative. But certain choices take their toll on the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Most of these take place on the micro level. For example, there is one moment when Violet has actually found the long-lost mask – and inexplicably fails to realize it, despite the fact that the object she thinks she’s found should be a great deal heavier than it has a right to be. And I question whether such an important cultural institution as the fictional museum at which we spend a great deal of time would have such lax security as it proves to have. Also, some characters and descriptions given a spotlight moment, or a significant buildup, prove merely to be sidelights to the main action…and some events that seem like they should be important turn out to be dispensable. Segrave should have either treated them with more importance or excised them from the story.
I feel most ambiguous about the conclusion, which focuses on and satisfyingly resolves the main issues of the story, but at the same time seems entirely too rushed and introduces far too many things to truly work. Perhaps Segrave should have telescoped the beginning of the story somewhat to make room for more thorough development of the fantastic turn the story takes once Violet and Tom reach Scotland. Yet it would be a shame to lose any of the interesting material from our time in Venice. While I think Memoria works well as a stand-alone novel, therefore, I would have liked to see just the Venice material as the first novel of a trilogy, with the sections in Scotland reserved for the second novel and a more developed conclusion in the final volume. That sort of scope would have allowed Segrave to maintain her superb pace, and escalate the story through multiple novels, making it more believable.
Yet though it strains credulity at some points, especially toward the end, the central conflict, the central relationship, and the feelings involved in Memoria are never anything less than real. At its heart, this is a story of two people caught in a romance that might not have been, and held by their love in an unfolding mystery that might cost them everything – even each other. I predict that most people who give this novel a chance will fall in love with Violet and Tom, as I did, and will be drawn in by the voice of a writer who, in a few more novels, will be able to sustain her initial brilliant buildup all the way through the end.
There is a saying that has some great importance in Memoria, a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Tempus edax rerum. Time, the devourer of all things. Ironically, Segrave’s novel played a beautiful trick. It devoured my time. And I wouldn’t take a second of that time back.