THE APOTHECARY’S SHOP
By Roberto Tiraboschi; translated from the Italian by Katherine Gregor
Publisher: Europa Editions (October,
A Novel of Venice 1118 A.D.
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
A young man hunting crabs in a lagoon on the outskirts of Venice gets the fright of his life when the perfectly-preserved body of a beautiful woman rises from the swamp, seemingly coming back to life. Alvise runs to tell the authorities about his gruesome discovery, then returns to Ca’ Grimani to share the news with his mother, Nena, and their mistress, Magdalena Grimani.
Magadalena and Nena are busy with their nightly ritual of turning the villa into a fortress. Venice is still trying to recover from a disastrous earthquake in January of this Year of Our Lord 1118, but at the end of this cursed year, another disaster shakes the city. The powerful doge of the city is killed in battle, leaving the city with no leader and a shaky government. Cutthroats, thieves, rapists and murderers roam the streets at night, attacking anyone foolish enough to cross their paths. Magdalena is terrified for her home and family, and takes all precautions to keep the evil at bay.
Alvise, frantic, covered in the mud of the lagoon, comes into the villa and sputters out his wild tale. Most of the household have doubts, but one person, Edgardo d’Arduino, believes him. He is the family scribe, but before he came to Venice he’d visited the island of glassblowers in search of a magical stone that could save his failing vision (THE EYE STONE). While there, he fell in love with Kallis, the beautiful slave, apprentice to a cruel master. He’d last seen her fleeing in a small boat during a terrible storm that destroyed the island of Metamauco more than a decade ago. He’d never stopped hoping she might still be alive; now, the answer might be at hand. If the miracle woman was Kallis, he could give up his hope but find closure; if not, he would continue to wonder what had happened to her, year after lonely year.
The master of Ca’ Grimani, Tommaso Grimani, had employed Edgardo to keep records for his shipping business, but when his wife’s sister Costanza came to live with them, she expressed a desire to learn to read and write. The scribe was brought into the family home to instruct her, a move he was pleased to make. Costanza has proved to be an eager and adept pupil, and she and her teacher have developed a friendship during their time together.
Costanza, who was always frail, has become increasingly weak. Against Magdalena’s wishes, Tommaso decides the girl should go into a nunnery, where she can be better cared for. Edgardo is given the unhappy chore of taking her to the convent, San Lorenzo, for an interview. He’d promised to watch over her carefully, to protect her, but he left his post for a short time. When he returned to take her home, she was nowhere to be found. A search begins for the young woman; Edgardo, filled with guilt, goes to great length to find her. During this time, a young boy goes missing and the body of the miracle lady from the lagoon disappears. There are fears that the same person is responsible for all three cases, and that he might not be finished. Tension in the city rises to an almost hysterical level as days go by with no progress.
Edgardo, who has physical ailments as well as emotional pain, has found some relief and solace in the soothing smoke of opium. He gets his supply from an apothecary who asks no questions of his clients. His mistress has brought in Magister Abella, the only female doctor in Venice, hoping that the woman can help her deliver an heir for Ca’ Grimani. At first repelled by the flamboyant woman, he gradually comes to admire and trust her. He learns eventually that the doctor and the apothecary are keeping secrets, secrets that might provide an answer to all his questions.
Roberto Tiraboschi is a renown playwright and screenwriter as well as a popular novelist in his native Italy. THE EYE STONE, which introduces the reader to Edgardo, was his English debut. His novels are bursting with color, intrigue, and historical detail. He describes 12th century Venice as though he’d actually been there, walking the filthy, refuse-covered lanes, visiting the grand villas and the pitiful hovels of the haves and have-nots, traveling along the fetid canals. I look forward to seeing where Edgardo’s path leads him next. Highly recommended.
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