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by Roberto Tiraboschi and Katherine Gregor, trans.
Europa, October 2017
336 pages
ISBN: 1609454170

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In 1118, Venice is without a Doge, and crime and corruption run rampant. The streets and canals are open sewers, buildings destroyed in a recent earthquake lie in ruins, citizens fight with cats for food, and a young, beautiful virgin's perfectly preserved body rises up through all the muck and sets events in motion that will affect one of the city's most powerful families and change the course of history.

In THE APOTHECARY'S SHOP, Roberto Tiraboschi captures the atmosphere of a Venice in turmoil, evoking images of filth and debauchery as well as infrequent glimpses of beauty, especially in his descriptions of light on the water. Overall, though, Venice of 1118 is not the magical, tourist-filled city of 2017 by a long shot, and that comes through abundantly clearly. This is a city where most people are starving, violence against people and animals is the norm, and opium and superstition are necessary escapes. In the midst of all of this, Costanza, a young girl from a noble family, disappears, and later her body is discovered. Alvise, a young man in the household, is eventually accused of her murder and is sentenced to be blinded, hanged, drawn, and quartered. Edgardo, the family scribe, is convinced Alvise is innocent and embarks on a journey through both his past and the city's awful present to discover the truth. He enlists the help of a female physician, and together, they uncover horrible secrets that, ultimately, affect the future of Venice itself.

Tiraboschi's plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of twists that keep the reader guessing, and there is intrigue and danger every night when the sun sets on the Venice he creates. But this is not a fast-paced thriller. The horrors are shocking, but they are presented as commonplace. The pace is circuitous and often as mired in muck as the small boats that push their way through the canals. Motives and events are often obscured or seen from an angle. And, mostly, that works because atmosphere and setting dovetail nicely with pace and plot. Sometimes, some of the everyday horror is a bit much and is merely there for shock value. Much of the language is overblown and descriptions overwrought. Toward the end, coincidences abound, and the discovery of the answer to one of the main questions comes much too conveniently, as does the saving of Edgardo's life when it's threatened. But overall, the plot is interesting, as are the characters. The real star of the book, however, is the Venice of 1118 itself, in all its awful and beautiful and fascinating emergence as a growing center of trade between East and West.

Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, November 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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