Palladino Books, 2015.
The Witch of Napoli drew me in right from the first line. The author is great at finding creative ways to share information (date, location, etc.) without listing facts. The narrator uses an authentic speaking voice, telling the story to his audience in an almost interactive way. He assumes we know the full story of the Witch of Napoli, so he is just filling in some blanks – meanwhile, the readers must piece together what really happened on our own. I really liked this approach; it lent a mysterious quality to the plot.
This historical novel tells the story of Alessandra Poverelli, a medium who causes great excitement in 1899 Italy at her spiritualist séances. Tomaso, our narrator, was a young reporter at the time who photographed Alessandra levitating a table while communicating with souls of the dead. The photo brings them both to the attention of Lombardi, who attempts to prove that Alessandra is nothing more than a talented sleight-of-hand magician. The reader is left to wonder about the truth behind Alessandra’s séances.
Before her fame, Alessandra’s story begins with the religious persecution of her father, and her uncomfortable relationship with the church continues throughout the novel. She prays and makes the sign of the cross at her séances, casually combining Christianity with Spiritualism, and the church is not happy about it. Some believe that the energy Alessandra brings to her gatherings comes from within her, strengthened by her inner rage at her childhood treatment by the church and those meant to protect her. Meanwhile, she begins to channel the frightening spirit of Savonarola, a heretical monk who was eventually burnt at the stake. Ironically, the Vatican is after Alessandra next.
Although this novel was filled with passionate, exciting, sometimes frightening events, the writing did not have much intensity. As I was reading, I noticed that the story felt like journalism, perhaps a serialized news article. There was an emotional distance between the reader and the characters which made it difficult to care and connect, and the writing could be described as cold. The fact that Schmicker is actually an investigative journalist explained the newsy feel of the novel, as well as the fact that Alessandra is actually based on the true story of a controversial medium in late 19th century Italy. The style of language and even direct quotes were taken from her and her contemporaries, and incorporated into the novel.
While I found it very interesting to learn that Alessandra’s story was based on true events, it did manage to take away the passion and excitement from Schmicker’s writing style. So, the story itself gets four stars, with one subtracted for lack of spirit and intensity.
I received this novel from Netgalley and Palladino Books in exchange for an honest review.