By Daniel Mallory
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; C04
CITY OF SILVER
By Annamaria Alfieri
Minotaur. 317 pp. $24.99
No city on Earth is closer to heaven. Huddled some 13,000 feet above sea level, amid the salt flats and plateaus of what is now southwestern Bolivia, Potosí crouches at the foot of Cerro Rico, a low-slung mountain once famed for its silver deposits. Today, the depleted mountain presides over a town of tin miners and restored chapels, but 400 years ago, it crowned the wealthiest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere.
In her vibrant debut thriller, "City of Silver," New York writer Annamaria Alfieri resurrects Potosí's 17th-century heyday, when "even their maids wore gold on their chests and pearls embroidered on their sleeves. . . . Wealth was the reason for this city's existence, and its citizens flaunted all they had. . . . Their city had dominated the economic life of the planet for nearly a century." Chief among the hedonists is de facto mayor Francisco Morada, who disdains his louche wife, Ana, but dotes on their wild-child daughter Inez. After the girl absconds to the Convent of Santa Isabella de los Santos Milagros and begs the skeptical abbess to admit her as a novitiate, Morada threatens the order with ruin.
Mortality, ever obliging, soon interferes: On Good Friday, with the Morada household still riven by her flight, the nuns discover Inez's pristine corpse on the floor of her cell, flail and rosary coiled beside her, a shattered carafe near her hand. The abbess dismisses the notion of a natural death: "Otherwise-healthy young women do not drop dead of heart failure," she observes. What about suicide? But if Inez "destroyed herself," her body cannot rest in holy ground; interment there would endanger the abbess's standing with the local commissioner of the Inquisition. A perfect murder, then? "Who in this convent would take another's life?" the nuns wonder. Meanwhile, the king of Spain has dispatched an emissary to investigate impurities in the Potosino currency, a mission that could render Potosí "nothing but an imitation Spanish city in the most desolate spot on earth."
Densely brocaded with period detail, "City of Silver" reads like an El Doradan "Name of the Rose," all cloistered intrigue and New World decadence; it recalls too Ron Hansen's lyric masterpiece, "Mariette in Ecstasy," in which a gorgeous young postulant bewitches her fellow brides of Christ. Yet Alfieri evokes a past, place and people that are altogether sui generis. Her Potosí is replete with virgins and voluptuaries, political rivalries and caste tensions; her stately, wrought-iron prose paces galloping action sequences and intimate exchanges alike; her solution, though lifted wholesale from Umberto Eco, is no less ingenious for it. As both history and mystery, "City of Silver" glitters.
Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.