Venetian mystery of a woman’s past

Written By: Scarlett MccGwire
Published: April 29, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

A MAN OF GENIUS

by Janet Todd

Bitter Lemon Press

£16.99

The dark side of Venice has always ­attracted authors, both Italian and international, contrasting the city’s ­decadence and glory with the hidden underbelly of much of its native population. Locating much of her 19th century story there, Janet Todd captures both its beauty and desperation as her protagonist, Ann St Clair, navigates her way as an ­unwary traveller.

Without an excess of description, from La Giudecca to a palazzo, Todd transports the reader so effectively that we can feel the chill November wind coming off the canals or suffer the unforgiving heat of the summer when those who can afford to escape to cooler climes. Her Venice – a city of more darkness than light – lingers in the mind.

As the title announces, this novel concerns a man of genius – or so he and his male friends believe, as at first does St Clair. The heart of the story is, unfortunately, timeless: an apparently strong, independ­ent woman falling for the charms of a man who proves to be increasingly destructive to himself and her as she persists in clinging on.

Todd explores the obsession of St Clair with the boorish and brutish Robert James as she pretends to live as his wife in Venice – never wanting to give up on him – so effectively that one wonders if she writes from experience. A dark memory would explain why she fails to paint James as particularly attractive even at the beginning, so that  it is difficult to fully understand why St Clair is so tied to the man whose only touch is a violent  beating.

Todd also brings her knowledge and affection for female writers of yesteryear into play. Ann St Clair, a young woman of indeterminate parentage who has to make her own way in the world, pens cheap gothic novels. These are mirrored in the plot. The writing is studded with such allusions and a deep know­ledge of the history and thinking of the period permeates much of the book’s dialogue.

Ultimately, a book has to work as a story, not merely writing to be admired, and Todd just manages this, although it drags in parts. However, like any good gothic novel, the final chapters are page turners as St Clair discovers both her past and her destiny.