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'Palace of the Drowned' review: A high-water mark in suspense

"Place of the Drowned" by Christine Mangano is

"Place of the Drowned" by Christine Mangano is set in Venice in 1966. Credit: Flatiron Books

PALACE OF THE DROWNED by Christine Mangan (Flatiron. 272 pp., $27.99)

If you like your psychological suspense stories awash in atmosphere, drenched in dread, positively soaked through with sinisterness, Christine Mangan's "Palace of the Drowned" is for you. The setting is Venice in the fall of 1966, the site of a real-life historic flood in which water levels rose over six feet.

As she did in her 2018 bestselling debut novel "Tangerine," Mangan focuses her narrative on a slow-building, intense relationship between two women. Frances "Frankie" Croy is a middle-aged, one-hit wonder British writer who has retreated to a friend's vacant palazzo to lick her wounds and hunker down to work.

As she settles in, Frankie becomes increasingly convinced that a mysterious presence also inhabits the supposedly empty palazzo, whose inauspicious Italian name translates into English as "Palace of the Drowned." Since she knows no one in Venice, Frankie's paranoia thickens like the shadows in the corners of the palazzo's dusty rooms.

One day, though, as she's walking near the Grand Canal, a hand reaches out of the crowd and grabs her wrist. That hand belongs to a young woman, also British, who claims to be an acquaintance. Frankie is uncertain.

The woman, whose name is Gilly, is a budding writer who is well acquainted with both Frankie's work and Venice. In the ensuing weeks, Gilly proceeds to drag a somewhat resentful, somewhat grateful Frankie through the city's labyrinthine passageways to cocktail parties and the opera.

The ingeniousness of "Palace of the Drowned" derives from Mangan's skill in stirring up carefully calibrated doubt about everything and everyone. Was that initial meeting by the Grand Canal a trick of fate or did Gilly (who may or may not be a stalker) engineer the encounter? Is Frankie right to be suspicious or is she simply becoming the madwoman in the palazzo? Is the palazzo really haunted or are Italian mice just particularly noisy? The ground of truth in this story is as unstable as its watery setting.

Mangan's narrative structure can sometimes feel a little too bogged down in its own clever ambiguities, but the pace picks up as the historic storm of 1966 gathers force. Mangan, who has a Ph.D. in English with a focus on Gothic literature, clearly revels in describing the claustrophobic terror of the storm: "Frankie, entombed in the palazzo, sat and watched as the skies grew darker. The water below had taken on a metallic sheen — oil, she realized. … Various bits of debris floated by. A sofa, a suitcase. Planks of wood. Bolts of fabric."

In a melodramatic climax worthy of the opera that Frankie and Gilly attend, tears, accusations and confessions fly free; so, too, do precious manuscript pages that sink down beneath the rising waves of the canal that borders the palazzo.

Like so many other recent suspense stories, "Palace of the Drowned" ultimately turns out to be a tale about literary appropriation and the anxiety of authorship. About her own commanding authorship, Mangan should have no anxieties: This is one damp creeper that will give readers renewed appreciation for the stability of dry land.

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