cover image Island of the Mad

Island of the Mad

Laurie Sheck. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (396p) ISBN 978-1-61902-835-7

In her follow-up to A Monster’s Notes, Sheck again channels the voice of a disfigured protagonist to create this novel that reads like a lucid dream. Told in short chapters composed of choppy paragraphs, the book starts with reclusive Ambrose A. at his menial job electronically archiving old books, somewhere in America. In a break from routine, one day he receives a letter from a coworker he’s never spoken to asking him to go to Venice in search of a mysterious notebook. Although he is hunchbacked and suffers from a rare medical condition that causes his bones to break easily—such as by walking through the city—Ambrose embarks to the Venetian Lagoon and San Servolo, the “Island of the Mad,” where he begins to have visions of Frieda, a young woman who lived through the Venetian plague of 1557. Heavy with allusions to Russian authors Dostoyevski, Turgenev, and Bulgakov—Frieda is a character from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita—Sheck’s book takes up weighty themes such as perspectivism and the nature of time by considering 16th-century Venice through the eyes of writers and artists who found themselves in the city. Although the book can feel repetitive, with colors and motifs repeating themselves ad nauseam, the book’s insularity is also one of its strengths. Sheck pulls readers through the time-worn canals of Venice on a literary romp that will please fans of the historical and the fantastic alike. (Dec.)