book: Father Panic’s Opera Macabre (2000) by Thomas Tessier

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Historical novelist Neil is motoring around Italy when his car breaks down near a big old mansion occupied by a strange group of old people, a forceful priest and a red-hot babe, Marisa. Marisa offers to put him up for the night while the servants do something about his car. Cue a bonkathon. A few days later, as Neil wonders if he really wants to go home, ever, there’s an abrupt transition into a different place and time, where Neil witnesses acts of unspeakable sadism and finds his own life at risk.

There’s a lot of fairly explicit sex in the first two-thirds or so of the book, and for me it didn’t seem very convincing. While I was assured from time to time that Marisa was voluptuous an’ drop-dead gorgeous an’ all that, she never really seemed to emerge as a person. Now, this might be Tessier trying to indicate that Neil never saw past the sex-partner aspect of her — or, more like, never tried to see past it — but I’m not sure I can buy that. He’s a novelist, after all: it’s his job to see below people’s surfaces. Besides, from time to time the possibility of a future with Marisa crosses his mind: you don’t think that sort of thought if your interest in the other person extends no further than worrying if you might have pulled a muscle in the midst of position #43.

Here’s his initial impression of her:

Neil found her very attractive. Marisa’s skin was milky white, with a faint rosy glow, and she had long cascading waves of very fine black hair that was not glossy but had a rich, subdued luster, like polished natural jet. She was about 5’6″ tall and her body was sleek but gloriously voluptuous. Neil wondered what color her eyes were — even through the sunglasses, he could see flashes of light in them.

It’s all on the surface, like something out of a product manual: “Your new appliance is about 5’6″ long by . . .” Yes, I can see him noticing the skin and the hair, but I can’t believe he’d estimate her height (although he might note that she’s quite a lot smaller than him, just up to his shoulder — that sort of thing) or not try to read her character from her smile. Does she read Emily Dickinson in her spare time or bellow at televised boxing matches?

I found the later section of the book pretty abhorrent. I gathered from the notes at the back that the scenes of cruelty and carnage are based on events in Croatian concentration camps during WWII — apparently even the Germans blanched at descriptions of what went on there. That such things really happened does not, I think, offer justification for what’s really just a protracted wallow in sadism — if anything, it seems to me to make it worse.

All in all, then, I didn’t enjoy this book. The author does display a certain narrative ability that shouldn’t be underestimated, but the novel/novella seemed to me to be, in both its sexual and horrific content, a sort of adolescent production. The same went for the plotting, but that’s for another day.

5 thoughts on “book: Father Panic’s Opera Macabre (2000) by Thomas Tessier

  1. “…even through the sunglasses, he could see flashes of light in [her eyes]”

    She’s wearing very bad sunglasses or she’s a Supernatural Being or Tessier’s got a bit over-excited.

    • Oh, yes: I included that final sentence precisely in order to mention that — and then of course forgot. Thanks for picking up on it! Ironically, even though the physics is dubious (to euphemize) it’s the one bit of the description that couldn’t just as well be applied to a mannequin.

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