Bookworm, writer, radio host—I blog about history, fiction, and publishing in the Internet Age. You can find the full blog on my website. This space is for books.
Rome, 1918: The Great War appears unlikely ever to end, and the world grows weary. But Tommaso Labella, editor of the Roman newspaper Il Messagero, faces a more personal sorrow. He has just received the news that his friend Alessandra Poverelli has died of the tuberculosis that has plagued her for the last twenty years. Not an unexpected death but a sad one.
The news propels Tommaso back into memories of his first meeting with Alessandra, then a noted medium in Naples, and the months that followed as they traveled around Europe to one scientific event after another, each designed to test Alessandra's abilities. For this is the late 19th century, when even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—creator of that unparalleled logician Sherlock Holmes— is drawn to the idea of Spiritualism, in an uncanny precursor to our own technologically sophisticated yet at times determinedly obscurantist age.
For every fan, Alessandra encounters a skeptic eager to prove her no more than a skilled magician. She insists that she really does levitate tables and call on the spirit of Fra Savonarola, and Tommaso has the pictures to prove it. But who will take the word of an illiterate Neapolitan peasant and her 16-year-old photographer over the professors and scientists of London's Royal Society? Especially when she is hiding a disreputable past and doing her best to elude her criminal husband? Even the Vatican becomes concerned as Alessandra's fame continues to grow.
Michael Schmicker, a journalist himself, tells his story with the verve of a correspondent tracking an elusive but fascinating subject. As a reader, you'll swear the events are taking place before your eyes—appropriate, since this is a fiction based on the life of an actual "witch of Napoli," whose identity the author reveals at the end. The book builds to a rich, satisfying, believable finish that leaves just the right number of questions unanswered. It's all great fun. Highly recommended.