Tuesday 25 October 2016

Fiction: Drowning The Gowns by Peter Hollywood

New Island €10.95

Hilary A White

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

Drowning The Gowns by Peter Hollywood
Drowning The Gowns by Peter Hollywood

A dead woman. An Irish painter. The author Henry James, and the decaying, transient mystique of Venice in the mid-1890s.

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At a glance, it is certainly a potent recipe for a spot of literary-fiction wonderment, you feel, and Peter Hollywood's novella does come close to hitting its achingly elegant set of targets.

But the Newry author perhaps has one eye closed while taking aim as this undeniably pretty hodgepodge of art, politics, detective work and supernatural vapours ultimately struggles to leave a firm imprint on the imagination.

Reuben Ross is the Hibernian artist doing a stint in fin de siècle Venice. One night, he spots the aforementioned US author of The Turn of the Screw dumping a deceased woman's clothing overboard into the canal (an incident which is said to have actually happened). Later, the painter is approached by the writer and a relationship forms. Reuben is asked to do a portrait of the late woman and so he is pulled into a damp and loosely plotted labyrinth of wedged-in trope characters and sprints down alleyways.

It's lovingly spun by Hollywood, who clearly appreciates the alliterative and assonant music of language - "The day of the drawing dawned with a freshening wind blowing down from the Dolomites … siphoning through large and little canals alike, causing wave-slap and clothes flap and craft to see-saw on the water" - but the overall plot of Drowning the Gowns could have done with some thinning of the atmospheric smokescreen.

By the time we are bidding farewell to Reuben back in a Dublin that is readying itself for a city-wide insurgency, the comings and goings of the Venetian intrigue have wafted away on the breeze, never to be seen again.

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