Past reviews


I review contemporary fiction for The European Literature Network and others.  Here are some reviews of books I really enjoyed.

17.10.2016  #RivetingReviews: Valeria Vescina reviews BELLA MIA by Donatella di Pietrantonio (translator: Franca Scurti Simpson)

Earthquake  noun

1: a shaking or trembling of the earth that is volcanic or tectonic in origin

2:  fig. upheaval

(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Most of us won’t have experienced the convulsions of the ground, which also in 2016 have devastated entire communities, from Ecuador’s Manta to Italy’s Amatrice, but the news coverage will have driven the horror home. And who hasn’t grasped since childhood the extent of the turmoil implied by the figurative sense of the word? That is one of the reasons why this novel of loss and of the subsequent existential journey, set in the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake, establishes an immediate connection with the reader.

The title Bella Mia refers not to a woman but to L’Aquila, in a folk song full of nostalgia for this legendary city of the ninety-nine churches and ninety-nine fountains. In the novel, there is no returning to it: it will not be the same after the 2009 earthquake, even if the original stones and bricks are used in the re-building. Similarly, the reconstruction of the survivors’ identities and relationships will require more than reassembling pieces of their former lives. What the novel’s protagonists cannot foresee is the transformative power of love and creativity.

The three main characters are linked by a fourth, Olivia, who perished in the earthquake. The first-person narrator, Caterina, is her twin. She is sharing temporary accommodation with her elderly mother and with Olivia’s teenage son Marco in one of the “new towns” of prefabs. Caterina had been the weaker of the two sisters, never wanting to have children, believing herself not able to look after another, when standing on my own two feet is hard enough. She is now ashamed to be there, alive by mistake. […] The earthquake lottery […] saved me, and I am sometimes wistful for the end I was denied. I’m not a mother; he [Marco] isn’t the fruit of my narrow womb. […] He scares me, as does the enormity of my task.

The task of all the characters is to find a new balance, now that the earth has stopped shaking. Balance is the quality permeating the novel, almost as if, through the elements of writing, the author were whispering cues to help her fictional creatures attain their own balance. The author denounces the superficiality with which the inhabitants were reassured after the first tremors, the shoddiness of the “new towns” and the authorities’ insensitivity, but does it through Caterina’s passing remarks and actions. Upon moving into the prefab apartment, she and her mother find a bottle of spumante wine waiting for them from the government. Caterina opens it carefully to stop it popping and drains the contents into the sink. Her action needs no explanation. The narrator’s voice may give a first impression of spontaneity, with her terse sentences and the force of her initial fear and anger, but this is counterbalanced with lyrical insights disguised as throwaway comments. There are no concessions to sentimentalism. Details of the tragedy and its prolonged aftermath are realistic and yet eschew the gore and the grime: the novel’s primary focus is on the internal worlds of the survivors, who are yearning for light. The outstanding translation by Franca Scurti Simpson renders faithfully all aspects of the writer’s style, most crucially, its concision, which demands that every word convey its precise meaning and echoes.

Caterina’s process of reconstruction involves acquiring that part of herself which she had left to her twin. Olivia was simply the best part of me. I willingly showed her my weaknesses so that she could take care of every one of her younger twin’s fragilities, she who was so full of grace and fortune. But as she learns to take care of their elderly mother, of Olivia’s son and of a young neighbour who has lost her little girl, she understands that it was too simple for her and others to rely on Olivia. She seemed to be able to do everything without effort, without pain. She didn’t know how to complain, and this not knowing is how she lost herself in the end: when the earthquake struck, she made Caterina and Marco leave the home while she searched for his jeans to spare him embarrassment. Nobody, other than our mother, had ever really paid attention to her. […] As happens to those who appear to be too strong, she wasn’t protected, she seemed not to need it, independent and invulnerable creature that she was. Caterina comes to realise that Olivia wasn’t always happy: she gave Marcoan imaginary father by making every effort to protect the child from noticing her husband’s neglect of them both.

The leitmotif of balance is therefore carried also by the two instruments of Caterina’s transformation: the outward focus which gradually alters her innermost self, and the specific form of her artistic expression. Caterina is in fact a ceramicist. From the earth which reduced to rubble all that I had made, issues the clay with which she gives shape to her new creations: baubles decorated with birds, which will lead her to a man who understands her intent and to whom she’ll open up; and her sculptures of the screaming twins where she depicts Olivia’s mouth open in an unending scream, while her own expression surprises her: she continues to shout but she’s overwhelmed by beauty.

On hearing the call of a scops owl, a repetitive kew in e-flat, for the first time since the night of the earthquake, she is not distressed but elated. There is a sort of hope in the note. She has leapt beyond her old self, in which optimism was an unusual state of mind. Of the owl’s dual favourable-mournful symbolism in Italian folklore, she has chosen the less common one: the auspicious connotation dating back to the cult of Minerva.

It would be incorrect to infer too much neatness from the symmetries in the book’s structure. The subtle play of balance and counterbalance constantly engages the reader, while offering a reassuring framework to explore the chaos of complex issues with no easy answers. Between those things left unsaid by one character to another, those musings with no clear-cut conclusions, the action suspended in mid-air as the novel closes, the author leaves space for readers to fill in the gaps – in the book and beyond.

It comes as no surprise that Donatella Di Pietrantonio has been hailed as one of the most notable debuts of the past decade on the Italian literary scene. Bella Mia won the Brancati Prize and was shortlisted for the Strega Prize, two of Italy’s top literary prizes. English-language readers can now discover why.

Reviewed by Valeria Vescina

Bella Mia

by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Translated from the Italian by Franca Scurti Simpson

Published by Calisi Press (2016)

15.6.2016  #RivetingReviews: Valeria Vescina reviews A WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler (translator: Charlotte Collins)

Shortly before his death in 1985, Italo Calvino drafted Six Memos for the Next Millennium, his series of Norton Lectures for Harvard University (previous speakers included T. S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Borges…). The challenge – which occupied him for a year, reportedly “becoming an obsession” – was to select six literary values worthy of being carried over into the next millennium. The resulting masterpiece opens up with a chapter on the virtue of ‘lightness’: “the lightness of thoughtfulness, [which] can make frivolity appear chunky and opaque.”A Whole Life attests to the enduring value of just this kind of ‘lightness’ – a lightness of touch which counterbalances the depth of Robert Seethaler’s themes, distilling them into thoughts and images that linger in the reader’s mind.

The protagonist, Andreas Egger, is a labourer whose long life unfolds in the mountains of Austria. With the exception of his years as a soldier and then as a prisoner during and after the Second World War, he has not left. He is an uncomplicated man, rather than a ‘simple’ one. He adapts to the changes in the world around him with a mixture of “silent amazement” and openness to experience: with the arrival of electricity in the valley, and of a firm set to build cable cars, he begins working for the latter; with the advent of tourism, he becomes a mountain guide and likes “these people […] whose breathless chatter revealed to him the secrets of other fates and opinions.” Above all, he develops ways of coping with harshness and tragedy. Orphaned as a child and raised by a relative whose beatings lead to Egger’s permanent limp, he confronts his abuser. Later, after his pregnant young wife is killed in an avalanche, he finds ways of enduring grief and of drawing comfort from small things. Every experience alters him slightly, each filtered through his consciousness at that point in time, so that he evolves like a tree trunk, each year creating a fresh ring around the core. I am reminded of Joseph Roth’s ‘Job’ and ‘Barbara’, where glimpses of ‘moments’ across a character’s whole life quietly elevate it to an epic dimension.

Seethaler does not romanticise the Alps. They are sublime in that they elicit Egger’s and other characters’ wonder and terror, but his response to both emotions is practical, and his personal history a testimony to neither the mountains nor the past being rosier environments than our own present day. What the mountains do offer – with their beauty and menace, magnificence and isolation – is a perfect framework for exploring the novel’s themes: the cycle of life and death; the seeming insignificance of human life in the vastness of the universe; the struggle against grief’s power to annihilate; the role of love; sources of everyday joys, strength and meaning.

A Whole Life has been an unexpected success in the German-speaking world, and now beyond it. Could it be that its quality of ‘lightness’, in Calvino’s sense, enables it to gently connect at a profound level with a wide readership? Novels of this kind defy easy classification: they eschew overtly literary ‘markers’ while still handling weighty universal themes with a delicate touch. The paradox is that the unassuming bridging of these apparent contradictions constitutes a huge technical feat on the part of the author – not light work at all. The novel was deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

There is a seeming simplicity to Seethaler’s language, which Charlotte Collins’ outstanding translation captures. The brevity of the sentences, the terseness of the dialogue, the absence of lengthy philosophical musings, the local colour and specificity of a scene, convey a first impression of utter naturalness, as if the characters couldn’t possibly move or speak in any other way in the setting. But the rhythm of the prose and the weight of every word in this short book testify to the thoughtfulness behind it. The characters may phrase existential questions with curtness, and the terms of reference of their mental images and utterances may be those of people steeped in mountain life, but those very same questions have occupied humanity for millennia, everywhere.

Were the novel’s protagonists modern-day scholars of Ancient Greek and Roman Classics at the University of Vienna, they too might reflect that ‘No one can take away from any man so much as a single moment’ – and then they might smile, realising that Epicurus reached that conclusion in the third century BC. They might say, “Dead is dead and that’s that. There’s nothing after that” – and then recall Lucretius’ verses about why “Death to us is nothing”. Like Egger, they might pity a man “who had spent all his life thrashing his own happiness away from him” by dwelling on his losses to a destructive extent, but they would likely make a passing reference to the Stoics. In every era, we inevitably explore the themes running through A Whole Life, formulating the discourse in a manner appropriate for our age.

At the end of his life, Egger feels he has “every reason to be content”, even though many of his dreams have never been realised, and despite his heart-rending losses. He possesses the ability to capture the joy of the earth warmed by the sun under his ‘night-damp feet’, the wood which “had stored the warmth of the last days of summer and smelled of dry moss and resin”, and the coolness of a flat rock on which he lies down. In his work, he has been able to find pleasure and ways of dissolving “despairing thoughts”. Above all, he has been warmed and sustained by the experience of love: by the brief period with his wife Marie, and, following her death, by memories of the moments they shared.

Marie is warmth and sunshine. In her first encounter with Egger, she is standing by “the warmth of the stove”, serving at the inn where he’s seeking to recover after seeing a man run to his death in a blizzard. In the weeks which follow, Egger and Marie take walks together in the sun. To propose to her, he arranges for fires to be lit on the mountain to form the words “For you, Marie”. By contrast, death comes as “the Cold Lady”, whom a goatherd in the book’s opening scene vainly attempts to elude. Yet, as the novel closes, the Cold Lady reappears in the likeness of a ghostly Marie: the scar across the nape of her neck, bright-red and “shaped like a crescent moon” in her lifetime, is now a shimmering sickle. This final conflation of life, love and death is consistent with the character of Egger, a man who has long learnt to connect the fragments of existence. In other writers’ hands, these motifs and symmetries might easily have become clunky, but Seethaler weaves them in unobtrusively, in keeping with the rare quality of ‘lightness’ that suffuses this quietly powerful book.

By Valeria Vescina

A Whole Life

By Robert Seethaler

Translated by Charlotte Collins

Published by Picador (2015)


10.9.2016 Amazon review on Paolo Gallo’s La Bussola Del Successo

Finalmente, un libro nel quale la parola “successo” ha un significato piu’ ampio e profondo del solito. L’ autore ci invita a considerare come le nostre scelte in campo lavorativo debbano e possano essere coerenti con i nostri valori e la nostra personalita’, oltre che con le nostre capacita’ e competenze. Il testo e’ supportato da solide cognizioni accademiche di Management e di Organisational Behaviour, e da efficacissimi esempi tratti dalla lunga esperienza di Paolo Gallo nella gestione delle Risorse Umane. Il tono e’ quello di un amico esperto e saggio, generoso nell’ accompagnare gli altri nel loro cammino, e del quale ci si puo’ fidare. Certamente, il libro offre spunti utilissimi a chi intende scegliere, cercare o cambiare lavoro. Ma la portata degli argomenti lo rende una lettura piacevole e stimolante per chiunque: tanti dei temi sono attinenti non solo al campo lavorativo ma ad altri aspetti della vita. Spero che “La Bussola del Successo” venga tradotto in molte altre lingue, per poter raggiungere un vasto pubblico internazionale.

20.12.2012 Amazon review on Nikita Lalwani’s The Village

Nikita Lalwani’s `The Village’ opens with Ray Bhullar, the main character, being watched by three security men. It is the first instance of a recurring motif: who is watching whom, and what does each see? Ray has come to Ashwer, an Indian open prison, to direct a documentary that promises ‘a non-judgmental’ approach. She and her fellow crew members, Serena and Nathan, are the ones doing the observing and the framing through the camera’s viewfinder. But it gradually becomes apparent that they’re in turn being observed – and judged. The shifts in perspective unsettle the protagonist, and with her the reader, by revealing the frameworks through which each subject views its object and vice-versa. Ray wants to capture the complexity of reality on camera, in the belief that Ashwer’s life-affirming example can ‘spread light, not darkness’. But for her colleagues, and for her boss in London, the reality of Ashwer must be manipulated as it lacks the drama that television audiences are presumed to crave. Soon enough, Ray is looking through the viewfinder and secretly altering the exposure set by Serena because it would ‘blast all the layers of light and shadow out of the scene’. And yet, inevitably, Ray too becomes entrapped by conflicting pressures until she finds herself in a moral quagmire. Her final response defines who she is.

A key theme of the book is authenticity. The descriptions of the Indian settings and characters are vivid and memorable, devoid of nostalgia or stereotype, and all dialogue rings true. Ray’s perceptions, narrated from a close third person point of view, are unflinchingly realistic, making her emotional journey believable and gripping. She is torn between worlds – the India of her roots versus the Britain in which she has always lived; and the media’s potential for good versus the brutal consequences of its transactional modus operandi. Ray has to traverse a moral maze to be able to discover what she values and therefore what her authentic self is made of. In the process, media ethics are put in the dock, as trust – on which Ashwer’s success is based, and which the television crew was to honour – is thoroughly betrayed.

The open prison is no mere convenient framework for the action, but another key theme. At the most obvious level, the book presents an eloquent case for reappraising the conventional monolithic approach to punishing crime, by pointing to the ways in which traditional prison systems fail to prevent re-offending. Lalwani deploys the concept of the open prison village also as a metaphor for the culture which any individual lives in and is shaped by: she shows that to relate authentically to oneself and others, one may first need to perceive the invisible bonds and boundaries that characterise any given society or milieu – including work environments, in this particular case the media. Only when Ray has moved from looking to seeing through this more demanding viewfinder can she remain true to timeless human values – no longer naively but from a wiser vantage point.

This is an intelligent and moving novel which deserves and rewards close reading. Its imagery and characters live on in the memory.

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