Ascension by Gregory Dowling

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Ascension by Gregory Dowling

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A historical window onto 18th century Venice opened by a cheeky chancer of a tour guide as he tries to survive the politics, murder and mayhem. A great, fun, meaty read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Polygon: An Imprint of Birlinn Limited
ISBN: 978-1846973130

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Alvise Marangon is an artist 'resting' between commissions and so using his guile and enterprise as a tour guide to those taking the European Grand Tour in 18th century Venice. Everything has a business as usual feel to it for Alvise until he notices a fellow gondolier paying his friend not to take a couple of English tourists. Then, as the new Doge is inaugurated a man's head is thrown into the crowd. Showing people around a typical Venice is becoming increasingly hard for Alvise – Venice is not behaving typically!

Fellow Bristolian Gregory Dowling went to Italy to teach for just a year. That was followed by another one more year, and another and… Now, 34 years later, he lives in Venice and has given up counting. Lucky for us!

Why lucky? His love of the city and its past has been translated into a novel which occupies a place and era we don't see a lot of on our historical fiction shelves, voiced by a narrator I would take to the pub any time… as long as I was wearing a crash helmet and stab vest! Alvise may be enterprising and quick thinking but he increasingly finds himself in some tricky situations. (Where we're concerned, for 'tricky' read 'exciting'!)

He's loyal to those who he feels deserve it and is definitely a one-lady man but isn't averse to using his reputation as a charmer. This has its downside though - we witness at least one occasion when his reputation brings him a step closer to death.

Our human trouble magnet guides us at the time of the 115th Doge, Pietro Grimani. We don't actually see much of the Doge but he existed and was considered an intellectual. In fact his friends included the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and under his auspices Venice became a centre for art and culture. However our story takes us away from the art in favour of the violence and unrest simmering beneath the aesthetic coating. For instance, nobody speaks highly of the Inquisition.

The Inquisition's methods are as feared as we would imagine. The knock at the door that normally heralds the arrival of a couple of burly men and leg irons could happen at any time. Meanwhile the Board of Inquisitors rely on a citizens' spy network that decries anyone, evidence or truth not necessary. Oh yes, this is definitely not a novel that's short of an aura of thrilling paranoia!

Indeed, Gregory is a master of drawing us in to psychological tension as well as set piece action. This is coupled with a fascinating sense of place and knowledge disseminated, among other ways, through some great period factoids and an interesting glossary at the back. For instance the original casinos were rooms in a house put by for gambling as we'd expect, but that's not all. Those who had the money and inclination could also sate their various peccadillos there at the same time, making these dives not only shady but, in this instance, downright dangerous. The Ascension of the title and the novel's grand climax is another example – the religious festival of the Ascension when identities are hidden. I shall say no more on that one!

There's no need for the more sensitive among us to fear though; there is violence and a few indications of a different way of enjoyment (shall we say?) without being graphic. The fear is totally in our mind manufactured by our imagination and hopes that the loveable rogue will survive. Will he survive? Read the book and find out, for if you do want to shun the approaching winter weather in search of escapism, this is a good place to start.

(Thank you to the folk at Polygon for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more of Venice and its influence, we recommend The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern or Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd. If you'd rather stick with the Venice based fiction then we heartily plump for The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric..

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