I received a copy of a this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Release date (UK): 2nd January 2015
I really underestimated this book. I received it for review early this year, and left it sitting on the shelf far too long. I finally started reading it on holiday in Italy last week; I was drawn in by all the Italian nuances and references to places I’d recently visited, but once I started reading I was riveted.
The Witch Of Napoli is a captivating story, and this is probably heavily helped by the fact that it is based upon fascinating real life events. Set in 1800s Europe, it tells the story of fiery Italian medium Alessandra Poverelli (based on controversial real-life medium Eusapia Palladino) who is catapulted into a whirlwind, media-fuelled investigation after a chance photograph emerges of her supposedly levitating a table.
The photographer who captures the fantastical feat is Tommaso Labella, the narrator throughout the novel. Tommaso first meets Alessandra at the age of just seventeen – he says “Alessandra was the first woman in my life” – and the two become inextricably bound together after his photograph attracts the attention of prominent psychiatrist, Camillo Lombardi.
Lombardi offers Alessandra a deal; he wants to tour her around Europe and subject her to numerous tests of her abilities by an assortment of top academics, in order to ascertain if her powers are real. In return, she will receive 4000 lire and a one-way ticket away from a life of near-poverty in Naples and an escape from her abusive husband Pigotti. Naturally, she jumps at the chance.
Through Alessandra’s gruelling tour alongside Tommaso and Lombardi, Schmicker deftly captures the conflict between rationalism and spiritualism which was prevalent at the time. The book is peppered with fascinating little facts (for example, I never knew that Arthur Conan Doyle was an avid supporter of spiritualism) and off-the-cuff references which capture the tone of the era, making it feel authentic and well-researched. Of course, it can’t hurt that this is the writer’s specialist subject – this is Schmicker’s first fiction novel, but he is an established investigative journalist specialising in scientific anomalies with multiple non-fiction publications under his belt, so you know you’re in safe hands.
It’s not just the factual accuracy that makes this novel so good though, it’s the characters too. I absolutely loved Tommaso as the narrator, and smaller characters like Lombardi, Huxley and Pigotti are well fleshed-out too. And then there’s Alessandra. An illiterate Neapolitan who rose from nothing to international fame due to her incredible talent (whether that’s channeling the spirits, telekinesis or simply deceit), I couldn’t help but root for her. She’s certainly flawed – at times her moods swings bordered on downright irritating – but she’s also strong, tempestuous and intriguing, and most importantly she always feels real.
I don’t know if this novel will be for everyone – it’s very straight-talking and sometimes feels a little too colloquial, but it’s definitely worth a try. And for fans of historical fiction or those with an interest in the subject, it’s an absolute must-read.