In an early scene from Ross King's new novel, Domino, our hapless narrator, George Cautley, is led down an overgrown path by two companions in hopes of avoiding an encounter with highwaymen. That the two are the very robbers he seeks to avoid is obvious, and his subsequent mugging is as inevitable as it is comical. The same could be said of the book itself; we follow the plot down a darkened trail, then smack ourselves when we are surprised by events we should have seen coming.
Cautley is an untrained but ambitious would-be painter who comes to 1770s London to seek his fortune upon the death of his father. His na•ve desire to find a patron who will finance his pursuits might appear to be an unseemly motivation, but it is perfectly normal within his times. In fact, it seems as if everyone in Domino is trying to curry favor with those above them. Using his one wealthy friend as an entry into polite society, Cautley meets Lady Beauclair, a beguiling and mysterious beauty who pulls him into her world when he agrees to paint her portrait. She begins to tell him the story of the castrato singer Tristano, and like a latter day Scheherazade, she draws him back to her chambers as much to hear her story as to paint her portrait.
The reader is drawn into Domino in much the same way. The word domino itself refers to the French word for mask, and this novel wears many. Beneath the humor is a dark streak, and the elderly narrator, an aged Cautley, has the same air of ennui and malice as those he encountered in his youth.
A native of Canada who now lives and teaches in England, King is the author of a previous novel, Ex-Libris, which tells the story of a bookseller's odyssey through 17th century Europe, and the acclaimed nonfiction bestseller, Brunelleschi's Dome. In his latest novel, King again displays an easy familiarity with his historical setting, using minimalist descriptions and concentrating on the actions of his characters to set the scenes. Brimming with exotic locations, duplicitous villains, ladies of questionable morality and quite a few surprises, Domino is a reader's delight that confirms Ross' reputation as a classic storyteller. James Neal Webb is a copyright researcher at Vanderbilt University.