Susan Parisi

Penguin (2008)

ISBN: 9780143007647

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in June 2009)

Blood of Dreams was a disappointing novel. A trite and meandering plot, and characters that are never fully realised combine to create a very unsatisfying reading experience.

In eighteenth century Venice Laudomia chafes under the guardianship of her brothers. Neither they nor her sisters-in-law want to hear anything about her gift of foresight. They want her to be an extremely proper young lady who never says, thinks or hears anything they deem scandalous; and they want her to marry someone conservative who will ensure the rest of her life will be like that. They particularly don’t want Laudomia to mention the visions she’s been having of a series of ugly murders terrifying Venice. Then Laudomia meets Estavio and the entire family is immediately smitten. But when Estavio champions Laudomia’s gift to her brothers, they immediately reject him as a friend and potential suitor. Laudomia, however, is not willing to let him go so easily.

The supposed twist at the end of the novel is in fact obvious very early on, at least if you’re paying attention. I’m not sure if this is deliberate – an attempt to make the reader more knowledgeable than Laudomia – or simply a rather clumsy attempt to seed something that the reader will remember retrospectively as a justification for the ending. Either way, it didn’t work for me. The twist itself was so trite that it only made me roll my eyes to have my suspicions confirmed.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the novel was the characterisation. A slight plot can be sustained by strong characters that the reader cares about and becomes involved with. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in this book. Laudomia is undoubtedly the main character; she narrates the novel and it is her viewpoint that colors all we see. And Laudomia never seemed quite real to me. Her infatuation with Estavio is that of a child – sudden, baseless, uncritical. That’s real enough, given her youth and the relatively sheltered life she has led to date. But we’re never given a sense of what makes the relationship so compelling to her that within days (it seems) she is taking drugs with him, sneaking off to have sex, and indeed leaving her family and home to be with him. There’s no sense of her being led astray, or tempted, or any very strong sense of her consciously rejecting the life she currently leads. She essentially says “my family don’t understand me” and takes a ninety degree turn. And it doesn’t ring true.

Since the novel turns almost entirely on Laudomia’s relationship with Estavio, it’s a fatal flaw that the relationship doesn’t ring true. Had there been more of a build up to the moment when she runs away with him – a sense of him enticing her, ensnaring her, drawing her to him – then it might have worked so much better. But it’s too abrupt and unexplained. Since we have no sense of Laudomia’s gradual seduction, it’s hard to understand why she stays with him when things start to get ugly. What is driving her?

None of the other characters emerge as more than a shadowy sketch. Estavio himself doesn’t emerge as a living and breathing character. Rosa, the maid who is Laudomia’s only semblance of a confidante, does no better; and the minor characters stand little chance. Although this may be intended to reflect Laudomia’s self-absorption, it gives the reader little to connect to or engage with.

The plot itself doesn’t help. Laudomia quickly loses sight of her supposed mission to find the killer stalking the canals of Venice. The blurb on the back of the novel suggests that this is the story of the novel; it isn’t. It disappears very early in the novel, and only resurfaces erratically and towards the end. If you pick this book up expecting a sort of historical crime novel, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Unfortunately, the remaining plot isn’t well thought through or structured, and the reader finds themself meandering around aimlessly, wondering when on earth something interesting is going to happen. For most of the novel, it appears the story is about Laudomia’s rather juvenile relationship with Estavio. Even when the “twist” is revealed, it’s still more a story about Laudomia’s self discovery than the murders.

The setting is perhaps the strongest part of the novel, but even there it falls short. The story is set during the months of Carnevale, when anything goes in Venice. Parisi does manage to make some use of the resulting sense of dislocation and unreality. Unfortunately, this setting has been used by other, more skillful writers, and it’s hard not to want more from Parisi. Laudomia never thinks of money, or where her food will come from, or how she’ll pay for her elaborate costumes and drugs. And yes, I know that’s probably intended as a build up to the climax of the story; but it means that Laudomia seems infantile and that the setting lacks that sense of grounding that would heighten the chaotic sense of Carnevale. And Laudomia is so self-absorbed that much of Carnevale seems to pass her by, allowing much of the potential of this setting to go unrealised.

Parisi has done her research, and to the best of my knowledge both her depiction of Carnevale and of drug use during this period is accurate. However, this isn’t enough to save the novel.

I didn’t enjoy Blood of Dreams. I found it far too slight to engage my interest; neither the characters or the plot offered anything very convincing or involving. Although it wasn’t exactly a bad novel – the writing flows well, the background is accurate, the setting is interesting – neither does it have any outstanding strengths.