The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni (William Morris/Harper Collins, 2020)
In writing a contemporary novel in the Gothic tradition, it is impossible not to compare aspects of great Gothic novels that have come before. The excellent, new book, The Ancestor, by Danielle Trussoni fits the description of a Neo-Gothic. However, drawing comparisons between previously written novels is half the fun of enjoying a Gothic read.
In the case of The Ancestor, there are characters who appear to have come from beyond, which brings to mind the disturbingly dark Doris Lessing novel, The Fifth Child. The inherent violence and anger in Lessing’s Ben, born of the couple, Harriet and David Lovatt, destroys the fabric of the once happy life that the other four Lovatt children have enjoyed, until the birth of their baby brother, “the fifth child.”
Just so, the protagonist of Trussoni’s story, Alberta Monte, is drawn into a journey to the estate of the Montebianco family in the Alps of Italy. Alberta has been informed by a mysterious lawyer, who has come to whisk her away to claim her inheritance, that she is actually the sole heir of the nobel Montebianco clan. (Think The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot, whose main character, Mia, is informed that she is not just ordinary Mia, she is actually the Princess of Genovia, the last of the heirs to the Genovian throne . . . note, The Princess Diaries is not Gothic, but I felt compelled to mention it).
Upon arriving by helicopter at the castle, as Bert is being escorted to her ancestral home, “We turned a corner, and ----bam----I was on the ground. A heavy, hairy beast tore at my coat with its teeth, growling and straining to split me open.” Her face, torn in the attack, prompts Bert into a state of shock when Sal, the groundskeeper of the property, growls at her, accusing her of prompting the attack by startling Fredericka, a Bergamasco shepherd. Instead of the warm welcome to her new home that Bert may have been anticipating, her face is mutilated by a “beast,” foreshadowing the weirdness that is yet to come.
The eerie castle, which now belongs to Bert, as she is called by her husband, Luca, as well as her friends, is reminiscent of the bat addled domain in Transylvania, the home of Count Dracula. Castle Montebianco is replete with over 80 rooms and several wings, in which Bert frequently gets lost. She tells us, “Much of the castle had been uninhabited for decades, maybe longer, leaving the rooms in shambles, shut up and abandoned. The bolted shutters, the furniture covered in dust sheets, the cobwebs filling fireplaces, the bed frames without mattresses---these neglected spaces were in ruins.”
As Bert explores the dark corridors of the castle, she comes upon the portrait gallery of her ancestors, all men, of course. They exemplify strength, intelligence, confidence, and courage; yet, their assets were not enough to save the Montebianco dynasty from near extinction. The reason for the failure of continuity, Bert surmises, is a taint in the blood of the Montebiancos, about which she had been warned by her Nonna, and even Luca has mentioned it to her.
Bert meets with her great aunt, Dolores, an invalid, who is wheelchair bound, and quite frail. It is this shriveled, elderly matriarch, who introduces Bert to the young woman’s great-grandmother, Vittoria Isabelle Alberta Eleanor Montebianco, known as Vita, when they pause in front of a handsome portrait of the old grand dame, herself. When Bert admires the visage of the woman in the portrait, Dolores retorts that the portrait actually looks nothing like Bert’s great-grandmother at all.
“This painting looks nothing, nothing like her. Nothing at all! Vita has always had a pale, frightening complexion and an overbearing appearance. . Despite various attempts to help her---experimental therapies and so on---she never did become presentable,” Dolores piques Bert’s curiosity by this description of her elusive great-grandmother.
When Bert does eventually come face to face with her ancestor, she is repelled and attracted simultaneously. Family secrets, mysteries, and lore, Bert comes to understand the power of ancestral ties in her search for identity. In essence, the theme of the novel is embedded in Bert’s search for where she belongs. The ultimate question that needs to be answered is, who is the real monster in the tale?
Another factor in the Gothic tradition of the book is Trussoni’s use of language to set tone. There are metaphors that make one pause to consider. For example, to set the mood of navigating her new home, Bert describes the castle having “narrow halls, arched doorways and vast corridors, every space communicating with the next, that we are not only navigating an old musty castle, but that the map of my vast family tree was unfolding before me.” Bert continues linking herself to her surroundings, “I understood that this savage place was in my blood.” As Bert explores the castle, she makes the connection to her place in the history of a family tainted by the starkest of evil and most savage lust for blood.
Danielle Trussoni, author of two other novels, Angelology and Angelopolis, writes the New York Times Book Reviews in the horror genre. Thus, she could be considered in expert in the field. The beauty of The Ancestor is that it refrains from falling into cliches and being trite. Trussoni has delivered a fresh novel that is compelling to read.