This is a mysterious book, dealing with time and a woman that does not age, places and people she encounters, and in the centre, the beautiful and lovely Venice “no ordinary city”. As the story develops, tantalising hints and sophisticated subtle writing tell a truly extraordinary tale of love, a long life and the crumbling of a city with a unique nature. This is a confidently written book, full of the mystical memories of a woman who has known love and loss, change and challenges. Heron has constructed a story of a powerful personality, glimpsed through her own eyes, full of the self-knowledge that comes with a long life. From the first, the reader is shown that not all is how it first appears, and thus the stage is set for a glorious exploration of opera and Venice over so many years. I was very grateful to receive a copy of this unique book to read and review as part of a tour.
The book opens with various quotations, most poignantly from Mozart, as the idea of the “constant woman? As mythical as the phoenix”is mentioned. In contrast, a young man is described arriving in Venice, Paul Geddes, seeking a Mrs Forrest. It soon emerges that he is seeking information, the story of a barely mentioned opera singer, Esme Maguire, with all the fervour of a new convert to the magic of opera. He has heard that Mrs Eva Forrest, a widow, has discovered some papers relating to the mysterious woman in her late husband’s belongings. He meets the lady, becomes entranced by not only the tantalising folders of papers that she dispenses to him, but also the lady herself. As they glide effortlessly into a relationship, she shows him the faded glories of Venice, the crumbling buildings of great age, the more recent restaurants and sites of interest beyond the first impressions of tourists. Against this background Paul reads the papers that form an account of the life of a woman who claims to have lived through so many years. She reveals how an illness led to her seemingly supernaturally long life, escaping the signs of age, having to use her wits, charm and singing abilities to literally veil her secret, mask her identity from even those she loves the most. Her connection to Venice dominates everything, and her memories echo the present day journeys around Venice as Paul is shown a mysterious city. He searches not only for the elusive Esme, but for a resolution for his suspicions of the unpredictable, beautiful Eva.
This is a novel which achieves so much as the truth slips in and out of view, forming a fascinating, almost hypnotic, tale of a woman’s life through various settings. I found it a mesmerising account of episodes of life, with the fear of relationships which end too soon, or in one case, not soon enough. This book evokes so many images, of a woman exiled from the city she loves, only able to return as a new person, of a crumbling but beautiful set of buildings, of the loyalty and love of many people who cannot be allowed to find out the truth. This is a book that will linger in the memory, with its yearning for love and truth of a life so unusual.
This is a truly lovely book, and once again it is lovely to read such an unusual novel.
Something very different soon!