Deathwatch by Lisa Mannetti. Book review

Deathwatch by Lisa Mannetti, Nightscape Press; Second edition, Kindle £3.64, p/b £8.67,

Reviewed by Rebecca Lloyd

Lisa Mannetti’s writing has a vigorous strength to it and is immediately engaging. It begins powerfully with:- ‘I was twenty when I first came to Hyde Park, New York and fell in love with the child who was both woman and ghost. And God help me, it was my infatuation – or obsession– if you prefer, that spawned both her strange shadow life as my bride and – later, much later– her death.’

There is no flabby writing in the two novellas, ‘Dissolution’ and ‘The Sheila Na Gig’ that make up ‘Deathwatch,’ and Mannetti pays attention to her chapter endings – in ‘Dissolution’ each one is artful and jolting. Both these stories are creepy, atmospheric and erotic. Mannetti’s choice of language and the tone it strikes resembles that of some Gothic novels, and convincingly so. Much of ‘Dissolution,’ set in 1893, involves medical surgery and as a reader, I felt confident that it had been well researched. I particularly liked this description of maggots:- ‘I watched them dive, wriggling, beneath her soft skin that was a bruise of nacreous flesh and mottled trails of gentian violet, mercurochrome…’

‘Dissolution’ in particular is full of atmosphere, created in part by Mannetti’s skill at describing sounds accurately:- ‘I was only half aware of the slosh of her washcloth dipping into the basin, the soft slur of the sheet as she slid out a languid arm or leg to clean it…’

And:- ‘I slipped a white gauze mask over my mouth and nose, and used a sterilized ice pick to open the first can of ether. It made a little plock – the sound of air rushing in – then hissed when I opened a second vent.’ Again, and this is wonderful:- ‘Beneath my focused, careful fingers I sensed/heard the faintly wet thrip and felt both the tiny poke of the needle, and, as I twisted my wrist, the corresponding minute catch in the living flesh.’

The second novella, ‘The Sheila Na Gig’ is set in Ireland, also at an earlier time. The story revolves around a dysfunctional family with a gruesome witch as a grandmother:- ‘Tom opened his eyes and saw Rose perched on the edge of the chair like some ravening bird. Her eyes glittered, her face was shrunken, her hair wild.’ Lust and sex has a strong part to play in this story as it does in ‘Dissolution,’ and again, taboo subjects are approached:- ‘It was his father swiving Ellen. It was his father making her sleep in the room off the kitchen and creeping down the stairs at night when the rest of the house was asleep; but those small sounds had penetrated Tom’s dreams.’

The two stories share a theme of sex with women who are not what they seem and the horror that that evokes in the male characters who are tempted. In ‘The Sheila Na Gig,’ Rose, the witch, has power over her grandson, Tom, who is in love with Ellen:- ‘He felt the old woman’s finger tracings on his own lips. She was working some peculiar spell. It was like kissing Ellen all over again.’ ‘Dissolution’ pushes gently [no pun intended] into at least one taboo area, that of a man in love with a child:- ‘All that came back to me was the doggy odor of sweat and sperm. I imagined the stains that would lightly green the nursery sheets; Ruth did the laundry, what would she think?’

However, while Mannetti’s work is strong, and I believe original, which is a great thing in fiction writing, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief with regard to a couple of the details in ‘Dissolution,’ and did wonder if there could’ve been a less elaborate way through the storyline. In ‘The Sheila Na Gig,’ while some of the dialogue sounded vaguely Irish, other parts of it sounded slightly Northern, and while this confusion isn’t going to bother readers not familiar with the dialects perhaps, I did find it distracting and it tended to pull me out of the story from time to time.