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“A Man of Genius portrays a psychological journey from safety into obsession and secrecy. It mirrors a physical journey from flamboyant Regency England through a defeated Europe struggling to create a new order after the upheavals of the Napoleonic conquests.
Ann, an author of cheap Gothic novels, becomes obsessed with Robert James, regarded by many, including himself, as a genius; she is captivated by his Romantic ideas, his talk, and his band of male followers. The pair leaves London for occupied Venice, where Ann tries to cope with the monstrous ego of her lover. The relationship grows tortuous as Robert descends into violence and near madness. Forced to flee with a stranger, she delves into her past, to be jolted by a series of revelations— about her lover, her parentage, the stranger and herself.”
The publisher’s blurb for Janet Todd’s debut novel A Man of Genius, artfully deploys come-hither phrases like ‘flamboyant Regency England’, ‘Gothic novels’, ‘Napoleonic conquests’ and ‘occupied Venice’, but anyone scenting a Georgette Heyer-meets-Northanger Abbey romp, good to while away a few spare hours. should look elsewhere, because the book’s central relationship owes more to the sado-masochism of Catherine and Heathcliff’s obsessive self-absorption than either Austen’s or Heyer’s finely observed romantic manoeuvrings.
Ann St Clair is a survivor: a young woman making her own way in a hostile and male-dominated society. Estranged from her eccentric mother, and never having known her father, she has no family except for a kindly but unimaginative cousin who finds her well-nigh incomprehensible. She makes a precarious living writing blood-soaked gothic novels for which there is, fortunately, an ever-eager readership, and it is at a luncheon hosted by her publisher that she first encounters the eponymous Man of Genius, Robert James. Ann is intelligent, self-aware and shrewd, but she nevertheless becomes utterly obsessed with James who – it quickly becomes obvious – is more Straw than Genius. He is famous for having written a brilliant fragment on Attila the Hun which had dazzled all who read it, but after promising so much, it has remained only a fragment and we soon realize that his verbal pyrotechnics are just that – all sound and fury signifying nothing.
The relationship between Ann and Robert James is not the stuff of romantic novels: they are locked in a strange dance of mutually assured destruction. We know it’s only going to end one way, but it’s like watching a slow motion train wreck – you can’t take your eyes off it.
James believes that leaving London for Europe will get his creative juices flowing again, so they travel to Venice – a stinking, mouldering wrecked Venice utterly unlike the city of Ann’s imaginings which nevertheless stills starts to work its own particular brand of magic on her.
For Robert James however, the move to Venice is catastrophic. Without his doting and fawning London coterie around him to bolster his ego and feed his fantasy, his fragile conceit – that he is a a Man of Genius – starts to disintegrate and it sets in motion a chain of events that pitches Ann straight into the heart of a real life gothic horror story, far more disturbing than anything she could ever create.
Neither Ann St Clair not Robert James are sympathetic characters, but what in a by-the-numbers romance or thriller or horror story (and A Man of Genius is, arguably, all three) would be a fatal flaw here is a natural and convincing consequence of their dysfunctional lives. Ann is not a helpless victim. She could walk away at any time, being by far the more practical and self-reliant of the two … but instead she stays and willingly colludes in the physically and mentally abusive relationship even when she can see him clearly for what he really is — a self-centred, deluded and spiritually dead monster
If that was all there was to A Man of Genius it would make for a pretty unrelentingly grim read, but cunningly interwoven with the Ann/Robert narrative is a mystery which is fed to us drop by drop and only unravelled at the very end of the book.
Janet Todd’s descriptions of a decaying post-conquest Venice are so vivid that you can smell the foetid water and see the crumbling palazzos. Venice is the glue that holds the novel together – a gothic setting for a tale of madness and beauty that wouldn’t work anywhere else.
This is not a frothy summertime read: the psychological insights are too acute and the deftly conjured oppressiveness of Venice in the summer entirely too convincing. What it is is an enigmatic and unsettling novel which keeps you wrong-footed and second-guessing the author every step of the way – and I like that in a book.
Bitter Lemon Press. 2016. ISBN: 9781908524-591. 352pp. Also in ebook format – ISBN: 9781908524-607.