It feels strange to be writing a review of a novel in which the catalyst is a negative book review. In Palace of the Drowned, Christine Mangan (Tangerine) returns to the literary thriller genre with a story of writers block and obsession. It follows Frankie Croy, a career author whose first book was one of those debut darlings that the publishing industry loves.
She’s four or so books into her career as the novel opens, however, and none of her subsequent books have lived up to that early promise. Not for Frankie’s publisher, and not for Frankie, who is chasing that tantalising feeling that comes from being truly immersed in her writing. When a review attributed to someone known only as ‘J.L.’ eviscerates her latest book, Frankie suffers a public breakdown at the Savoy hotel. Knowing that she only has one book left on her contract (and this, only a first option), Frankie flees to Venice to write the book that could save her career.
At this point, it’s pertinent to mention that the book is set in 1966. While the Venetian setting is vividly evoked on the page, the novel gives a sense of being set somewhat outside of time. Aside from the lack of technology, the story really could have taken place in contemporary times. But, it’s set in 1966, which was the year of a catastrophic flood in Venice. This impending flood serves as a metaphor for Frankie’s increasing sense of being trapped by her circumstances – by her age, by her single status as her only friend marries and moves on, and by the fact that what Frankie wants to write about is no longer what the publishing industry wants.
It is in Venice that Frankie meets Gilly (hard G as in fish gills), a young woman who claims to be the daughter of an acquaintance and a big fan of Frankie’s writing. There is something off-putting about Gilly right from the start. She is overfamiliar and pushes her way into Frankie’s life. The two of them forming an uneasy sort of friendship, with Frankie not necessarily trusting her, but finding she craves her company. As Gilly’s interest in Frankie grows, so does the uneasy sense that she is not who she says she is.
Meanwhile, Frankie can never quite get comfortable inside the giant palazzo she is staying in. It is known as the Palace of the Drowned due to the death of a woman that happened a long time ago. The building is now subdivided into two ‘apartments’. Frankie lives in one half of the house, but can hear the sounds of someone living in the part next door. Her unease grows when the house’s owner and the housekeeper both insist that there is no one there. Here, Mangan draws on her extensive knowledge of 18th-century gothic literature, making the house become a character in and of itself.
While the book tries its hardest to emulate a literary thriller, and even goes so far as to make a comment about what is happening to Frankie being like something out of Highsmith, the plot never feels quite tense enough. It is easy to predict the course of events as they pan out. Even the most action-packed part of the novel is deeply embedded in Frankie’s point of view, and she has a very analytical and interior way of looking at the world which makes the excitement feel very far away.
While I don’t agree that female characters always need to be likeable (and indeed Frankie does some very questionable things), the qualities that Mangan has given her which cause her to keep her friends at arm’s length also make her someone that it is difficult to connect to as a reader. She thinks she is much smarter than everyone else, and that she is a victim of circumstance, but she tends to let things happen to her rather than taking any sort of control. As readers, we are supposed to be questioning her state of mind, but the ambiguity about what is really happening just doesn’t come through.
Mangan does make some excellent points about the publishing industry’s appetite for marketable young debut authors, and the invisibility of older women. However, stories about writers struggling to write often stray into predictable or self indulgent territories, and in this case, the stakes never felt high enough. That is not to say that the book isn’t readable; but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Tangerine.