Book No 12 (2018) : The South in Winter

south in winterOne of the lovely things about being an amateur book blogger is that people often lend me things to read, which they’ve enjoyed, and/or think that I might like. In this way, I get to find out about authors I may not have heard of. So it was with a friend who lent me ‘The South in Winter‘ by Peter Benson.

Tread Lightly‘ is a travel guide with an ethical stance, and Matthew Baxter is one of their contributors. Packed off to Italy in winter, he is tasked with writing about the places from the perspective of an off-season visitor, not just a high season tourist. Back in London, the offices of ‘Tread Lightly‘ are undergoing some changes, one of which turns out to be bad news for Matt.

Written in the first person, a device which gives an immediacy to the narrative, the novel also portrays Matthew’s relationship with Cora. Their love affair seems to have been an on-off relationship, which is currently off. But there is sufficient tension in the to make the reader hope it might one day be on. Even though Matthew seems like a bit of a twit, and Cora is really not all that likeable. Maybe I had a sense that they deserved one another.

A fair bit of the plot is moved on via dialogue, some of which is very true to life. The problem being, that a real-life conversation is often not very interesting, with its pauses, broken sentences, non sequiturs and misunderstandings. All of these things are intensified because Matt and Cora are communicating via phone and text message, but I felt like a voyeur, a slightly uncomfortable eavesdropper.

Because Matt is writing for a travelogue, there are descriptive paragraphs intended for the ‘Tread Lightly‘ guide and I enjoyed these, even consulting Google maps a few times to see what places like Ravello and the Amalfi coast actually look like. (I went to the Amalfi coast for my honeymoon. If the internet is to be trusted, Sorrento has changed a bit in 28 years!). Certainly food for thought for future trips and a clever plot device.

I thought this was a very realistic book, with credible characters and a plausible setting, but in some ways it lacked dynamism as a result. I like my fiction to be a bit less true-to-life. If it’s introspection I crave, my navel is as interesting as the next person’s!

 

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Book No 14 (2016) : Early One Morning

early one morningHave you ever bitten into a jam doughnut, only to discover that it has custard in the middle? Not that there is anything wrong with custard doughnuts, it just wasn’t what you were expecting. That is what reading Virgina Baily’s novel ‘Early One Morning‘ was like. Once I got into it, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is 1943 and Chiara is making her way through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, when she witnesses Jewish families being herded onto trucks by soldiers. When one of the persecuted mothers catches her eye, silently pleading for help, Chiara acts on impulse and pulls the woman’s young son to safety. It  is a brave and dangerous act, as she knows nothing about the child, he has no papers or identification, only that his name is Daniele Levi.

From this dramatic beginning, I was expecting a story of how Chiara’s  compassion would be rewarded in spades, as she and Daniele become increasingly devoted to one another. Her adoption of the boy would be the ultimate act of selflessness, allowing him to grow into a sage and loving boy, grounded by Chiara’s devotion. Only that is not how the tale develops at all. Instead, Daniele is sullen and resentful, is never accepted by Chiara’s own sister and grows into a dysfunctional, damaged young man who is finally banished in order to save his mother’s sanity. When Chiara discovers that Daniele had fathered a child by a young Welsh woman, the wounds of the past are re-opened.

This novel is beautifully crafted and surprising. Chiara is strong yet so fallible, as she struggles to give up smoking and cannot bear to part with the possessions which clutter her small apartment. I have never visited Rome, but the descriptions of the city, through the eyes of Baily’s characters, made the place come alive in my imagination. Daniele is also depicted third-hand; imagined and romanticised by his daughter, despised by Chiara’s sister and protected by the priest, his form is enigmatic and uncertain. There is a fine cast of supporting characters as well, including Chiara’s long-suffering maid, Assunta, and her father’s lover, Simone.

If you like to have your expectations challenged and enjoy stirring descriptive writing, then this is a book you will certainly enjoy. Just don’t expect it to be sugar-coated. Unlike doughnuts.