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Via Dolorosa, by Ronald Damien Malfi
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
Published: 2007
Review Posted: 3/9/2007
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 10 out of 10

Via Dolorosa, by Ronald Damien Malfi

Book Review by Adrienne Jones

Have you read this book?

"It's like magic," she said. "We're in a dream."

When first reading this bit of dialogue from Ronald Damien Malfi's latest novel, Via Dolorosa, we think we've got a newlywed wife drunk on happiness at a honeymoon resort. But the further we delve into this exotic and doomy tale, those words begin to take on more significance.

Via Dolorosa is told from the perspective of Nick D'Nofrio, a young lieutenant recently relieved from his duties in Iraq. With wounded arm and wounded spirit, he struggles to enjoy his honeymoon despite the memories and secrets of the war still stinging like a fresh burn. At the start of the book, we believe this is our story base, a young couple starting a fresh life together. But then a storm comes, and in a flash of lightning, things have changed.

Emma and Nick, who started out smilingly in love in the sunshine, sit across the table from each other in the hotel restaurant as a tropical storm rages outside, looking very 'post argument' awkward. Something huge has occurred, but we know not what. Malfi writes like a film, jumping to the next scene and trusting us to feel the shift. With the onset of this storm a darkness falls over Nick, his marriage, the resort, and even the island around it.

Suddenly Nick's life takes on a disquieting sense of the surreal as everything is somehow connected. He's got the drunk father of a dead army subordinate working as the hotel Bell Captain; a grief soaked man who creepily strives to make Nick his replacement son. Then there's a bartender who takes a boat out each night to search for his long dead child, a child Nick spots at play around the resort. Even the conch peddler seems to know his secrets. And finally there's Isabella, a decidedly morbid Spanish photographer who serves as the vixen darkness in contrast to wife Emma's toothache sweetness.

All of this subtle strangeness leads Nick to wondering if this is reality. Did he die in the war with the rest of his comrades? Or is he having some sort of trauma-induced delusion? I've rarely seen an author create a shroud of dystopia so subtly while still managing clarity. Malfi doesn't point you in the direction he wants you to go. He reveals clues at his own pace, in his own style, and has patience that the reader will tilt their head until they can see the whole picture.

His style can be confusing at first, as the dialogue is extremely formal and all the women talk like Audrey Hepburn. But as you dig deeper in, things like the circuitous babble of vixen Isabella begin to hint knowledge of his war secrets, and again we're swept away in the dream mood of this book.

"Please," he begged. "Can we just leave?"

"Silly baby boy." Again Isabella laughed and for a moment he could not breathe. "We're never going to leave, Nicholas."

In a gorgeous climax, Malfi gives us a symbolic montage or war and nature as our Nick tries to get off the honeymoon island, pushed to madness and driven to discover what's real and what's not. Via Dolorosa is a complex and unusual book, and should be consumed with an open mind, and a relinquished trust to the author's storytelling abilities. Don't get frustrated at the early plot confusion; it's just Malfi laying the ground work for a haunting tale that never quite lets you get comfortable.

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