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Imagine for a moment that, lost in a hallway, you open the first door you come to in an attempt to get your bearings. It’s a small room, and a bath has been drawn. The air is thick with steam and neroli blossoms. Surely someone will be right back, but you’ve slipped out of your clothes already and are lowering yourself into the water, the heat relaxing your muscles so it’s only when you’re completely submerged that you realize your feet can’t touch the bottom, and there’s darkness closing in above.
This is not a scene from Palmerino (Bellevue Literary Press), Melissa Pritchard’s eighth novel, so don’t worry—no spoilers here. It is, however, a fair approximation of what it feels like to be drawn in, seduced, startled and awakened by this lush, strange, supernatural tale.
In her mid-fifties, Sylvia is unmoored. Newly divorced—her husband has left her for a male colleague—and chastened by poor sales of her last two books, she has come to Palmerino for both refuge and salvation. Her intent is to write a new biography of Violet Paget, the writer best known by the pen name Vernon Lee, whose eccentric family, literary celebrity and male persona lit up this small British enclave in the Italian countryside. Her research is less illuminating than the place itself, which seems to pull Sylvia in unexpected directions, and the cats who appear in her room and gaze directly (seductively?) into her eyes.
Palmerino is definitely a novel of allure: the seductions of history, literature, and especially biography are at its core. We live again when someone reopens our lives, but what if we’d rather be set free? Somehow these heady ideas are right at home in a novel that balances its darkness with occasional hilarity. When Mary Robinson, Violet’s first (unrequited) love, comes to stay with her, her initial impression of the home and family call to mind the drawings of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey. It’s not just the “priest’s confessional box, uncurtained and piled with firewood”slapped down in the middle of the living room, but Violet’s parents and brother, each with a roster of quirks too lengthy to capture here.
Sylvia’s time at Palmerino is initially reflective; she tries to visit old friends and finds they’ve moved or passed away, errands are awkward with her limited Italian. Her experience is hemmed in, caged. Even the research is dry and fruitless. When she begins to write, though, she finds a presence in the past that initially offers solace, and then a sort of mania. The pages, and unwashed dishes, form an island around her.
Is writing a sane occupation? Is it wise to become completely absorbed in the life of another? Violet, or V., demanded there never be a biography written of her, preferred not to be photographed, and isn’t thrilled with this recent turn of events: “Dead less than a century and I find myself exhumed, roughly labeled as a jam pot. Bosh.” She tries to steer Sylvia’s attention: “I help her set down truth, how it was first with Mary, then Kit. She allows this, does not fear what I often wrote about when fleshed—the supernatural. White margin between worlds.”
At a mere 191 pages, Palmerino is deceptively slender. The writing here is as dense and absorbing as the gardens around the estate. Every pot of marmellatta or wall of cracked and leaking plaster open a sensory portal the reader can get lost in. By turns as fanciful as Astrid Lindgren’s Villa Villakula and foreboding as The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Palmerino is surprising at every turn, sometimes frightening, and above all beautiful. Come to explore, and leave your departure date open.
By Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press
Paperback, 9781934137680, 191 pp.