No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, November 01, 1998

The Innamorati -- Midori Snyder

Midori Snyder's previous novel, The Flight of Michael McBride, successfully juxtaposed cowboys and the Sidhe in nineteenth-century America. The Innamorati initially seems less ambitious, rooted in a Renaissance Italy which only slowly reveals its points of departure from the mundane. This is the Italy of the commedia dell'Arte; of that peculiarly Renaissance interpretation of classical mythology which inspired Titian and Botticelli; and of Ariosto's fantastic epic of magicians and fabulous beasts, Orlando Furioso.

If all this gives the impression of meticulous research and historically accurate prose, that's less than half the story. Snyder is a witty and observant writer, with an eye for telling details. She handles a large cast with ease, and each character is an individual, with history and mannerisms and quirks that distinguish them from the usual fantasy archetypes as much as from one another.

And everyone carries a curse: this, after all, is a novel about a group of people with a common desire to rid themselves of the various problems that beset them. That it is not only a novel about what one might term magical psychotherapy, is perhaps its greatest triumph.

There's Anna, a maker of masks for Venetian nobles, whose masks speak to her. Lately, though, she has become unable to give life to them – a barrenness of creativity that mirrors her body's lack of fertility (though she has a teenage daughter, Mirabella, to console her). The wealthy merchant Roberto watches Anna's self-destructive gaiety and wishes that she would settle down and marry him: but what can he offer her that will ease her pain? There's Rinaldo, a mercenary who wants to retire from his life of violence: Fabrizio, whose career as an actor is severely hampered by his stammer: Lorenzo, a lawyer who used to be a poet until he embraced Truth and realised that all poetry is lies …

They've all heard tales of Labirinto, the City of the Maze, where the cursed and sick may find solace and win their hearts' desires. Severally and together, they embark upon a pilgrimage to lose their curses in the twists and turns of the maze. But a maze – like a wood – is also somewhere to lose one's way. Labirinto's Maze (like Holdstock's Mythago Wood) is not a mere collection of hedged paths, but a sentient place which presents archetypes for the delectation, and despair, of those who gain entry.

Forcing each pilgrim to confront what they fear, or love – for love can be a curse, as well as salvation – the Maze reveals its secrets slowly and, on occasion, painfully. The greatest trial, shared by all the characters, lies (of course) at the heart of the maze. Only through the actions of a sorcerer's daughter, and the literally elemental conflict which ensues, can the various quests be completed.

Snyder contrasts earthy humour and ethereal song, love and death, betrayal and redemption, with unobtrusive skill. The Innamorati is a beautifully balanced novel: each character, and each element of the plot, has a counterpart, and the whole fits together like an ingenious machine.