Books: Supping on songbirds at the palace

E Jane Dickson suffers from a dearth of plot and fact in Venice; The Palace by Lisa St Aubin de Tern, Macmillan, pounds 15.99

Reading Lisa St Aubin de Tern is like dining on songbirds. There is a deal of decadent glamour in her now novel, but little to sustain the reader. Set in Venice and Umbria in the early days of the Risorgimento, The Palace is an extended fantasy narrated by Gabriele del Campo, a peasant whom Fate and political upheaval turn into a patrone.

The novel opens in a Vatican gaol. Gabriele, a mercenary soldier fighting for Garibaldi, finds himself shackled to Vitalli, a high-minded colonel of noble birth. Reprieved, by pure freak, from the firing squad, Gabriele reinvents himself in Vitelli's image. As well as lessons in etiquette, ethics and deportment, Vitelli teaches his protege to play cards. In return Gabriele, a stone-mason by trade, gives Vitelli a guided tour of the splendid imaginary palace he has built to keep himself sane in captivity. Liberated at last by the victorious redshirts, Gabriele seeks the fortune he requires to build his palace in the gaming rooms of Venice.

St Aubin de Tern's Venice is a place of unrelieved fever and fret, rotting piles on a lagoon stiff with submerged horrors. "The heart was dying," reports Gabriele, "the lungs wheezed, the blood oozed round the ancient body. Where the mud and the sewage blocked veins completely, life began to stagnate. The ague victims were lowered from windows and bundled into boats."

Soon, however, our narrator develops a sophisticated taste for corruption. "I viewed her [Venice] first as a bartender might view an ageing courtesan and then discovered gradually that, despite the garish paint and the peeling make-up, the shredding silk of her gown and the musty smell of her ancient flesh, she still had more wit and spirit than many a pretty girl and that she had a perfume of her own, an essential oil of sensuality which was lost in the artifice unless you were very near."

The prose is lush and occasionally lovely, but quite soon the reader, floundering in essential oils and eloquence, becomes quite desperate for a story-line. When Gabriele finally quits Venice to build his palace in Umbria and capture the heart of the young noblewoman he loves from afar, hopes are raised, but plot seems to be the last thing on the author's mind. Detailed descriptions of everything from native fauna to 19th-century masonry techniques are thrown up like roadworks to restrict the narrative flow. Characters are introduced with solicitous attention then dropped, never to be seen again. All that is left is St Aubin de Tern's slightly woozy symbolism. It's all very well Gabriele "waiting for the sun to edge through the barred window and lay its light across my lap like slices of golden polenta so I could breakfast on memories of home", but how appealing is a lapful of polenta?

There are moments of grace: the description of a bolting horse, "Hammer teeth in a cavern of froth, desperate eyes and its ribcage storming with fear" has the authenticity of personal reaction. On the whole, however, The Palace seems curiously motiveless. St Aubin de Tern's terrifically successful early writing was based on her own extraordinary experience. The vivid prose was of a piece with a life lived with the contrast button turned right up. Her familiarity with Italy, where she has lived for many years, is not in question; yet there are huge gaps, not so much in her knowledge, as in her interest. "I must confess that I was blissfully unaware of witnessing anything historically interesting" chirrups Gabriele of his time in Venice."I could no more answer questions on the subject of recent Venetian politics than I could describe the exact surface of the moon." Forgivable in a character consumed by passion, this blithe laziness is less charming in the author. What is the point of setting the book in the Risorgimento if you are going to ignore any historical fact that might animate your fictional landscape?

The story of Gabriele, with its courtly love and swarming canvas has more to do with Bocaccio than Vittorio Emmanuele. It is almost as if St Aubin de Tern has gathered up the bare bones of a story-from some scattered archive, clothed them magnificently, but failed to articulate the skeleton. The Palace is not a book that needed to be written, and it shows.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas