Review of Trial in Venice: Helen Wilkes

When I panic about whose fingers are on the nuclear button, when I fret over desecration of the environment, when I cannot cope with injustice abroad and on the home front, I reach for books to restore my perspective.

I could have done no better this week than to reach for A Trial in Venice, the third volume of a remarkable trilogy by Roberta Rich. Although it is fiction, the tale is deeply rooted in historical reality. Unlike many such books, however, the author’s inventive plot left me gasping at the end of each chapter. Often, I had to lay aside the book for a moment in order to still my beating heart. In my head, thoughts tumbled about like pebbles in a rock-polisher. Roberta Rich is unparalleled in her ability to draw in the reader.

Her vivid description of conditions in 16th century Venice creates a kaleidoscope of colorful images and inconceivable conditions. Women who were considered witches by the Church for helping a mother in labor. One out of five mothers destined to die in childbirth, or shortly thereafter. A third of all children destined to die before age five. Poverty so extreme that “superfluous, discarded children, the luckless products of unfortunate couplings “were sometimes sold for a handful of coins, to be used and abused as their owner saw fit. “Was compassion a luxury only the well-fed could afford?” queries the heroine when she meets a child sold by his grandmother to an unsavory man likely to use the boy for “unnatural purposes.”

Around the globe, societies have made enormous strides since that era, both medically and ethically. Racial hatreds still exist, but they pale in comparison to the realities of the past. Few people today still cling to “the blood libel”- that claimed Jews thirst for Christian blood which they mix into their unleavened bread in celebration of Passover. Nowhere are there laws that confine an ethnic group to a ghetto where the gates are locked at sundown.

As a novel, A Trial in Venice reads like a whodunit. Each of the characters is three-dimensional, yet on a collision course where disaster seems inevitable. Still, time after time, solutions emerge where least expected. Like humans, the characters in the novel confront themselves as well as each other. Each character evokes surprise in the reader without deviating from positions that are at the heart of the conflict. The most memorable of these characters is Hannah, the midwife who proves once again that we all have choices. She accepts the circumstances of her life and all its limitations, yet she also somehow transcends them. She provides hope that we all can do likewise.

As an antidote for negative news, A Trial in Venice can’t be beat. It is a serious book, and at the same time, a happy book. It is thought-provoking, yet a total pager-turner. It is uplifting escapism of the finest kind. I can only hope that a fourth volume awaits in the wings.