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The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon

March 25, 2016

In Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series, the Venetian inspector has been called on to investigate many things, from shocking to petty crimes. But in The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th novel in this celebrated series, Brunetti finds himself drawn into a case that may not be a case at all.

Fifteen years ago, a teenage girl fell into a canal late at night. Unable to swim, she went under and started to drown, only surviving thanks to a nearby man, an alcoholic, who heard her splashes and pulled her out, though not before she suffered irreparable brain damage that left her in a state of permanent childhood, unable to learn or mature. The drunk man claimed he saw her thrown into the canal by another man, but the following day he couldn’t remember a thing.

Now, at a fundraising dinner for a Venetian charity, a wealthy and aristocratic patroness—the girl’s grandmother—asks Brunetti if he will investigate. Brunetti’s not sure what to do. If a crime was committed, it would surely have passed the statute of limitations. But out of a mixture of curiosity, pity, and a willingness to fulfill the wishes of a guilt-wracked older woman, who happens to be his mother-in-law’s best friend, he agrees.

Brunetti soon finds himself unable to let the case rest, if indeed there is a case. Awash in the rhythms and concerns of contemporary Venetian life, from historical preservation, to housing, to new waves of African migrants, and the haunting story of a woman trapped in a damaged perpetual childhood, The Waters of Eternal Youth is another wonderful addition to this series.

 

The joy of this marvellous series of books is increasingly getting to know the Brunetti family and eavesdropping on their family life. Commissario Guido Brunetti is married to Paola, the daughter of Count Orazio Fallier who resides in rather a splendid palazzo on the Grand Canal.
Guido and Paola live in rather less palatial circumstances, but Paola, in addition to being a cook whose meals are to die for, lectures at the university and is always reading. Their two children who are now turning into well rounded young adults also feature throughout the series.
This picture of cosy family life is delightfully added to by the small but wonderfully intricate ways in which Brunetti and his partner in crime, the delectable Signorina Elettra manage to subvert the will of his boss at the station, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Elettra is Patta’s secretary, but so much more. Her contacts are legendary; her methods sometimes questionable, but she knows how to find her way around Venetian bureaucracy and together with Guido, the pair always find the right way to convince Patta that what Guido wants to do is quite his own idea.
Leon’s last Brunetti novel, Falling in Love, was quite dark; in contrast this one is gentle and though the crime is terrible, the book is positive and life affirming.

You don’t, though, read this Brunetti novel in order to puzzle your way through who committed the crime –  it’s pretty obvious from the start.
That does not, however, detract from a beautifully written story where the characters are exquisitely drawn and the Venetian backdrop is painted with intricate detail.

The Waters of Eternal Youth begins with Brunetti’s reluctant attendance at a fabulous dinner party given by Paola’s mother, Countess Donatella Falier to enable her friend Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui, to raise money for her Venetian preservation group. At the dinner, the Contessa asks to see Brunetti; she wants him to investigate a cold case – an accident from 15 years ago which caused her granddaughter, Manuela, to suffer permanent brain damage following a plunge into the canal.
Brunetti agrees to look into the case – it was a foregone conclusion that he would given his mother in law’s involvement with the Contessa.

But first he must find a way to convince Patta that such an endeavour is a worthy use of police time. Fortunately Patta is an inveterate social climber and it is but the work of a few moments for Patta to decide that the way to his social advancement is to have Brunetti work on this case.
Working closely with his colleague, Commissario Claudia Griffoni, who soon develops a rapport with Manuela, Brunetti slowly but surely pieces together what happened that night 15 years ago.
A lovely read, The Waters of Eternal Youth is not full of twists or surprises, but is a beautifully written book, speaking evocatively of a different pace of life and with a heart warming conclusion.

The Waters of Eternal Youth is published by William Heinemann on April 7th 2016

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