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Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series is like comfort food –ironically in the crime genre, though the novels are so much more than crime. For those who await each instalment eagerly (as I do), it’s wonderful to follow in Brunetti’s dogged, measured footsteps as he paces around his beloved Venice, glides the canals in a gondola or rides a vaporetti, patiently interviews suspects in whatever crime he’s attempting to solve and opines about the fly-swarms of tourists infecting his calli and piazzas along with the corruption of those who hold the reins of power and who would sell their mamma’s souls as quickly as sink the ancient city. The interactions he has with his academic wife and growing teenage family, his irascible boss and clever PA, never mind his loyal staff are manna from reader heaven.

Moreso than the others in the series I’ve read, Earthly Remains is the most languid and leisurely paced. Part of the reason for this is, after behaving in an unusual manner to save the reputation of his side-kick, Brunetti’s given leave from the Questura. Encouraged by his wife, he leaves the main island and enjoys a sojourn on an outlying one, Sant’Erasmo, in a home belonging to member of his wife’s family. While there, not only does Brunettti begin to shed the tension and anger that his job sometimes provokes, but to fall back into the rhythms of his past and which he finds nourishing and fulfilling. While there, he befriends the caretaker of the house, an old widower with a history he’s reluctant to share. Inviting Brunetti to join him as he rows the laguna to check on the health of his bees each day, swims and fishes, the Commissario finds the man’s laconic companionship, the water, sun and peace living alone with good books, a much-needed restorative.

When the caretaker goes missing after a storm, Brunetti is drawn into the investigation. What he discovers not only takes him into the caretaker’s immediate and distant past, but into that of Venice and the very people with the power to either restore Venice to its greatness or sacrifice its soul.

Beautifully written, the prose steals upon you, warming your heart before chilling you like the winds that whip across the water. The pace is slow, measured, much like Brunetti, but this only adds to the mystery, to the sense of building towards a climax that rather than being shocking, is heart-wrenching in its utter callous indifference.

In many ways, this novel is analogous to so much that’s happening in the world today – how greed and the desire for power rips apart the lives of the innocent and not-so-innocent. How those at the top are out for themselves and will sacrifice whoever and however many it takes on the altar of avarice and narcissism. The manner in which corruption infects everything – not only in the short-term, but sadly, and with greater consequences, in the longest of terms.

A wonderful, thought-provoking read with a beloved character who, despite the themes, leaves you with optimism at its heart. As long as we have Brunetti and people like him, the world will be left a better place…we hope.

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