Twenty years after his last novel A Nice and Steady Job, Gregory Dowling returns to fiction writing with Ascension: a love letter to the City of Venice. Ascension follows Alvise Marangon, a young tour guide, as he offers to escort two English tourists in Eighteenth Century Venice and is then quickly embroiled in murder, conspiracies, and espionage.
Dowling takes the reader on a journey at a time when many young nobility from across Europe would visit the City. The young Mr.Boscombe and his tutor arrive in Venice on one such tour and from the outset are the targets of con men, murderers, and dangerous rebels. Alvise steps in, both to satisfy his curiosity and his sense of morality. A murder is committed and Alvise is pulled into a game of deceit and disguises by the Missier Grande, Chief of Police. Supported throughout the novel by the headstrong and beautiful Lucia, the daughter of a local bookstore owner, Alvise uses cunning and wit to solve the murder, and at the same time save all of Venice from a plot to murder and overthrow the entire Venetian government.
From the start of the novel, the reader is treated to vivid, highly detailed descriptions of the Venetian sights and the historical landmarks. An evocative picture is painted of everyday life in the beautiful city of Venice, as well as the goings-on at a festival as large and important as that of The Ascension. Dowling’s love for the city shines through the text in Alvise’s musings about the daily lives of Venetians. Many of Dowling’s previous novels, poetry and essays focus on Venice as well as other cities of Italy. His work as a Professor of Language is seen throughout Ascension as Dowling brings Venice to life for the reader with exquisite descriptions of the sights and people within the city.
While the detail provided in Ascension is outstanding in creating the setting, it does at times detract from the overall pace of the novel. Illustrating the beauty of Venice takes favour over the plot moving forward. I found that the novel takes its time in coming to the action and to the intrigue promised in the opening chapters. However, I found my attention held with the assurance of its claimed excitement and overall I was not disappointed.
Ascension addresses issues of class, particularly the idea that nobility is a birthright regardless of wealth or success; one cannot rise above the place of one’s birth. Dowling brings light to this by contrasting Mr.Boscombe, the wealthy yet not aristocratic English gentleman, and the noble Zanotto, who has lost his wealth yet holds his nobility with appropriate manner and fashion. The idea that one must always pay tribute to one’s class is woven throughout the novel in a very subtle manner; it is never discussed as a problem, but only as a fact of life. Through the actions of the characters the reader is shown the issues caused by class.
Alvise showcases the idea of brains triumphing over brawn as well as the modesty of a real hero that does not need praises sung in the streets. The striking imagery and extensive vocabulary used in Ascension will transport any reader to the streets, canals, theatres of the novel. I would recommend this book for anyone with even a passing interest in Italian history, conspiracies, or intrigue.