From Publishers Weekly
An art historian's trip to Venice to study a landmark painting turns into an effort to solve a murder mystery in this intelligent but murky second novel by Spanish writer de Prada (his first to be published in English), which mixes elements of crime fiction with musings on the process of evaluating great art. Alejandro Ballesteros is the Spanish protagonist who arrives in Italy to study The Tempest, a painting by Renaissance artist Giorgione that represented an important breakthrough in the use of landscape. But Ballesteros's expectations for a quiet academic interlude are overturned when he witnesses the murder of art dealer Fabio Valenzin and is caught up in the subsequent investigation. The nave art historian is fascinated by the intrigue at first, especially when it leads to a series of romantic and erotic interludes, the most significant with an art restorer named Chiara who turns out to be Valenzin's adopted daughter. The case bogs down in a morass of local politics, but is finally revealed to turn on the contents of a chest belonging to Valenzin that contains clues to a well-crafted, diabolical forgery plot. De Prada does a good job balancing the murder mystery with his exploration of the history of Giorgione's painting, but the romantic tangents make the book cluttered and busy. An ensemble cast of eccentric secondary characters and a foggy, evocative portrayal of Venice help blur the missteps, and the murder resolution is reasonably satisfying if somewhat slow to arrive.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Spanish author de Prada's talent is evident from the opening passage, an incantatory prose poem describing a Spanish art critic's horror at watching a stranger die on a deserted Venice street. It is also quickly evident that de Prada has little time for such niceties as coherent storytelling, realistic dialogue, or simple continuity--conventions that are difficult to dispense with in any sort of thriller, even an ostentatiously literary one. After witnessing the murder described in the first chapter, the hero and narrator, Alejandro Ballesteros, in Venice to study Giorgione's painting The Tempest, becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Along the way, he falls in love with an art restorer who struggles to teach the naive critic that "art is the religion of feeling and emotion." That's the author's message, certainly, but it's difficult to "feel" it with any force given the incredible clumsiness of the narrative. Still, it is impossible not to be impressed by de Prada's potential. His mesmerizing, surreal evocation of Venice is genuinely haunting, and his occasional bursts of beautiful prose, trapped amid a sea of overwriting, take the reader's breath away. This is not a great book, nor even a particularly good one, but de Prada may one day be a great writer. Bill Ott
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