Tanith Lee, ‘A Bed of Earth’

Tanith Lee is one of those authors who occupy a strangely vague place in my memory. Every so often, I’ll find one of her books in the library and spend a moment trying to remember whether I liked the last book of hers that I read. This is usually inconclusive, but she seems to be labelled ‘interesting’ and ‘worth a try’ in my mind, as well as ‘dark’ and possibly ‘Gothic’.

A Bed of Earth fits all the above labels, but left me dissatisfied. It didn’t connect. It’s atmospheric, macabre, and gently melancholic but somehow distant. It reminded me of looking at an exquisite tapestry, whereas what I wanted from it was full 3-D immersion, messy and emotional.

I was also mildly irritated by the setting of the novel in an ‘alternate’ Venice, called Venus (not a name I can really take seriously for a city, for some reason). The author explains in an introductory note that the reality of the novel differs from our own in that Cesare Borgia does not lose power with the death of his father, Pope Alexander VI, in 1503. I may well be missing something, either from an incomplete knowledge of Italian Renaissance history, or because this is the third book set in her alternate reality and there were things explained in the first two, but it seemed to me to be largely irrelevant whether Cesare Borgia retained power after 1503 or not. The story could have been played out with little alteration in our own ‘real’ history. The fact that she sets the book in ‘Venus’ seems to me either to be an excuse to play around with names (like ‘Chesare Borja’, which I find irritatingly distracting, leading me to wonder what else is different in this world and what caused the language differences), or to suggest that if you’re going to introduce ghosts and other elements of the supernatural you have to create a fantasy world to do it in. Which is just daft.

The other problem I had with this book came from the prose style. She has a tendency to use paragraph breaks with alarming frequency,  so that her paragraphs often consist of just a single sentence. This is irritating if you hear the rhythm of the text in your head as you read. Paragraph breaks, and punctuation, are there to show the rhythm and flow of the prose. Too many paragraphs makes it choppy and disjointed. If you were to read this book aloud, pausing between paragraphs in what I’d consider the normal way, then it would be full of strange gaps, indicating more significance than the text actually holds.

Having said all that, there are one or two vivid images I’ll remember from this book (death by possessed flamingo… wow), so the next time I find a Tanith Lee in the library I’ll probably give it a go.

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