By Joyce MacPhee
Accomplished Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s latest novel The Rising Tide is an amusing and irreverent tale of scandal, passion and politics set in Venice circa 1769. Consider the main characters: former priest turned publisher of erotic poetry Michele Archenti, and his puzzling friend Rodolfo, who carries a skeleton upon his back. Both love the beautiful courtesan Francesca Verace, who somehow displays signs of the stigmata.
Rodolfo and his ever-present skeleton, and an odd sighting on a nearby island, inexplicably cause the people of Venice to spread rumours of the Second Coming of Christ. Rodolfo is soon accused of heresy and imprisoned. The doge (the chief magistrate of the Republic of Venice) and the Vatican go head to head during a long trial to decide Rodolfo’s fate. Michele struggles to defend Rodolfo, despite having secrets of his own to conceal. He is aided by a disparate crew of supporters who rally to support Rodolfo amid increasing challenges.
Michele and Rodolfo were first introduced in Frutkin’s Trillium Book Award-winning novel Fabrizio’s Return, published in 2016. “When Fabrizio’s Return came to an end, those two characters who wandered off into the Dolomite Mountains kept coming back to me and insisting on a further life,” explained Frutkin. “So, I thought, of course, they could go to Venice and a new novel could start there.” He noted however that The Rising Tide is definitely not a sequel and it can be read on its own.
Frutkin has created a compelling and comical work with touches of magic realism and social commentary. He did so partly with evocative descriptions of a specific time and place, including frequent, often mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. Having studied and travelled in Italy, Frutkin is on familiar ground with this novel, but also did a lot of research.
“I’ve spent much time in Italy generally, so I have a kind of general research from those experiences, and have also done much reading research,” Frutkin said. He added that he had been in Venice four or five times and even wrote some sections of the book there. The Rising Tide has been well received by people of Italian descent in Canada.
The humour that runs throughout this novel helps make it a charming read. The byzantine bureaucracy of Venice and the Vatican, and the whimsical comments of Rodolfo, for example, add comedic elements. There are also passages of lyrical beauty, especially in descriptions of Venice.
The cover artwork and elegant period etchings of gondolas, bridges and architectural splendour enhance the text and help set the scene. However some of the issues touched on are also contemporary ones: rumours, red tape, scandal and power politics.
Frutkin is the author of four books of poetry, three non-fiction works and nine novels. His novel Atmospheres Apollinaire was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium and the Ottawa Book Award. He is continuing his exploration of Italian culture with a fifth book based in Italy, a novel about the Renaissance artist Caravaggio.