According to Amazon I have purchased Salley Vickers’ beautiful 2001 novel three times. I really can’t think why unless I gave it as presents to two other people. If I did, then it’s a sign of how much I must have liked it. I certainly have very fond memories of a warm, tender read so returning to it now promised to be a treat. And it was.
The titular Miss (Julia) Garnet, a retired history teacher, has recently lost her live-in companion of thirty years. No, they were not an “item” but they were close, perhaps like sisters, and Julia is feeling deeply bereaved and lonely. So she decamps to a rented flat in Venice, initially for six months. While there – long story short – she becomes fixated on the paintings by Francesco Guardi of Tobias and the Angel in the church of Angelo Raffaele, reads the Book of Tobit from The Apocrypha, makes friends for the first time in her life and finds, eventually, the sort of inner peace which has always eluded her.
It’s a book which operates on more levels and layers than any lasagne made in a Venetian restaurant. First, there’s an evocation of Venice as detailed and compelling a fine guidebook. If this novek doesn’t make you want to re/visit I don’t know what will. You can see the perfectly carved figures, smell the lagoon, taste the coffee, feel the rough texture of the statuary and hear the birds wheeling over the water.
The novel is also a richly sensitive portrait of a woman who has never known sexual love but, perhaps, even at this late stage in life would like to. Carlo is very attentive and attractive but …
Then there’s the spiritual awakening. Miss Garnet has always been an atheist communist but now, to the exasperation of her “friend” Vera, who visits from Britain, she begins to recognise that there might be more than one way of looking at things – especially angels. The character of, and her conversations with, the urbane, unconventional Monsignore are one of the novel’s many delights.
Julia is inspired to explore the Book of Tobit, a version of which Vickers threads through the narrative. It includes the earliest mention of St Raphael. The themes are echoed in what is happening to Miss Garnet now especially in the characters and backgrounds of Sarah and Toby, two young art restorers working on a chapel who become Julia’s friends and whose back story is complicated.
It’s also a doggy novel. There is a dog in the Guardi which sets Julia thinking and Monsignore’s pug, named Marco, after St Mark, is a character in his own right. Then there are the dogs she sees and hears on the street along with various other dog references. If one were studying this book with students there would be a lot of fun to be had in creating a big flow chart of themes to work out how they interlink.
This is a novel which twists and turns with such gentle elegance that it’s hard to foresee how Vickers could possibly end it. She does it with stylish lyricism – naturally.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver