This week I’m recommending a novel set in a city I thought I hated – Venice. `The Undrowned Child’ by Michelle Lovric was published in 2009 and it’s easy to find in paperback. You can also get the text on most e-readers but that wouldn’t seem quite right for a novel which starts in `an old-fashioned Venetian bookshop’ and features a magical guidebook and a printing press run by mermaids. In theory this long and richly detailed novel is a children’s book, but whether you enjoy this story will probably depend more on your personality than your age. I was lured into reading `The Undrowned Child’ by chapter titles such `Life as a ghost’,`Beware Mahogany Mice’, `Vipers and hot chocolate’  and `The toenail spell’.

The story begins in 1899 when eleven-year-old Teodora arrives in Venice with her adoptive parents. It is a troubled time for the city built on the sea – Venice’s regular floods are getting worse, hot water is bursting out of  ancient wells, children are falling sick and sharks have been seen in the Grand Canal.  Teo’s parents are among the scientists who have gathered to try and find out what is going on.  Being knocked out by a book falling on her head is the first in a series of shocks for Teo. The book itself -`The Key to the Secret City’ – has an inscription welcoming Teo to Venice while the beautiful girl on the cover seems able to move and speak. Teo hears strange voices, falls ill, is attacked in hospital by a statue and wakes up in a graveyard to find that her parents have  reported her missing. She soon discovers that she has gone `Between-the-Linings’ and can only be seen by children, animals, ghosts and other supernatural beings.

Teo wanders around Venice, with `The Key to the Secret City’ as her guide, and witnesses a gruesome theft from a tomb. She attracts the attention of Renzo, a local boy who loves books as much as Teo does but despises anyone who isn’t Venetian. When `The Key’ steers the two children to the House of the Spirits, they meet the original of the girl on the cover – Lussa, Queen of the Venetian mermaids. Lussa warns them that the angry ghost of the medieval traitor Bajamonte Tiepolo is stirring. He has already stolen a human skin and if he recovers his whole skeleton and his Spell Almanac he will be strong enough to wreak a terrible revenge on the city that once condemned him to death.  The mermaids send Teo and Renzo to recover the Spell Almanac, because they are the Undrowned Child and the Studious Son who are destined to save Venice from the traitor. In the Bone Orchard, Teo learns about her extraordinary  family history but as Tiepolo summons an army of evil ghosts and monstrous creatures, saving Venice looks more and more impossible…

The plot of `The Undrowned Child’ is inspired by its setting. Venice is famously one of Europe’s loveliest and most romantic cities but as a tourist I found it a dank and sinister place and the Venetians cold and unwelcoming. One of the things I like about `The Undrowned Child’ is that Lovric lets her young heroine discover both good and bad aspects of Venice.  The Venetians she meets are devoted to their families and to their unique home but arrogant towards outsiders. Teo’s Venice is beautiful and grotesque and full of the sounds and smells of the sea, pleasant and unpleasant. In the fine buildings, rich people live in splendour and safety on upper floors while the poorer people below suffer disease-ridden damp conditions and constant fear of deadly floods. Venice is shown as place of great achievements and dazzling art but with a history full of dark secrets of slavery, torture and murder.  Some of Tiepolo’s army of ghosts have good reason to hate the city. Lovric has used many real places and people in this story and there is an excellent appendix on `What’s True and What’s Made Up’. Children reared on `Horrible Histories’  will probably take a Doge being flayed alive and a child-eating butcher in their stride. As a mere adult, I found these nasty nuggets of Venetian history pretty scary. Still, as Renzo says to Teo, `Nothing in this world is perfect….But there is more that could be perfect about Venice than any other city.’

Undersized vegetarian bookworm, Teo, is an appealing heroine. She is also a Vedeparole but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that means. During much of the story, Teo isn’t quite sure whether she has become a ghost. Finding out who she is and where she belongs eventually restores her zest for life. Teo doesn’t work well with Renzo at first and she makes plenty of poor decisions. I sometimes felt that Lovric was allowing her smart heroine to behave stupidly just to get her into yet another dangerous situation, but what situations they are – swimming with sharks, attacks from tentacled monsters, dismembered ghosts and Vampire-eels – even ice-cream and a chief librarian prove dangerous. Although there is a lot of humour in the writing, this isn’t a safe or cosy fictional  world. The innocent and the good sometimes die, as they do in real life, and Teo’s enemies and their `Baddened Magic’ are cruel and relentless.

An endearing feature about this book is the diversity of the forces of good. Queen Lussa’s mermaids all look sweet sixteen but these `Pretty Ladies’  speak in  salty language they have learned from eavesdropping on sailors over the centuries ( `Ye bilge-sucking blaggards!’).  Being half-fish themselves, they don’t eat other sea-creatures. Mermaid cuisine includes mouth-watering dishes such as Fenugreeked Fiddlehead Ferns and Twice-Fried Chilli-Cucumber in Amber Sauce. As well exploring mermaid culture, Lovric has created three different kinds of ghost. Vengeance-obsessed Tiepolo is a rare `in-the-Meltings’ ghost and the mutilated `in-the-Slaughterhouse’ ghosts are mainly on his side, but Teo and Renzo have a chance of persuading the sad `in-the-Cold’ ghosts to atone for their sins by fighting for their city. In the spectacular final battle,  the children of Venice’s gondoliers, the stone lions and bronze  horses of St Mark’s, the relics of Saints,  English Sea-Bishops, Nereids on South Sea dolphins, kingfishers, pigeons and winged cats all come together to protect the city and her people.

If you like this story there is a sequel set in Venice and London and all the seas between. Since reading `The Undrowned Child’ I’ve become quite addicted to Lovric’s novels for children and adults set in Venice. I’m even thinking of giving the city itself another try. Until next week….