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
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The Independent Culture
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.