Friday, 7 December 2012

The Whirling Girl by Barbara Lambert

Clare is a very damaged young woman, whose life has been a web of lies and disguises.  She is a flawed, multi-dimensional heroine, feisty, maddening, but also likeable. Clare has become famous as the author of a book of unusual botanical paintings made on a trip to the Amazon, but there is a mystery surrounding it which Clare is reluctant to talk about.

When the story begins, Clare’s uncle, whom she hasn’t seen for years, has recently died and left his property in Tuscany to her, rather than to his wife, who is bitter and angry.  Clare is stunned by the bequest, but she travels to Italy to talk to the lawyers, taking her uncle’s ashes with her as instructed.

Her uncle’s house is in the heart of Etruscan territory and Clare is soon caught up in an archaeological intrigue which seems to have been part of her uncles’s legacy.  And there are two men trying to claim her attention, both of whom have dubious motives.   Clare has no idea who she can trust and her instincts are to trust no one.

I enjoyed reading this from the moment I opened the book - Barbara Lambert’s prose is rewarding and her handling of a complex plot very sure-footed.  I love archaeology and have spent hours crawling around in Etruscan tombs, so I enjoyed the detail.   In Italy it is quite normal to have an Etruscan tomb in your back garden - or to fall into one while walking your dog in the woods.  They lurk behind screens of vegetation or appear disguised as animal sheds or store-rooms cut into the rock.  This is one we stumbled into in the woods near Orvieto last January.
For anyone who has lived in Italy Clare’s story, the machinations of a corrupt bureaucracy, and the subtle ambiguities of motive that affect everyday life, are all totally believable.

The Whirling Girl is an excellent novel, soaked in Italian sunshine and Tuscan wine - jewel bright with antiquities and rare botanical specimens.  I also liked the way the author closes the story - there are no neat happy endings in real life - only more possibilities, and so it is for Clare. A very satisfying read.

Barbara is talking about how she found the idea for the novel over on my main blog today.

At the moment The Whirling Girl is only available in paperback, but it's hoped that the E-edition will be out soon.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Stone in a Landslide: Maria Barbal

Peirene Press specialises in novellas translated from a variety of European languages - this one was written in Catalan and tells the story of Conxa - brought up in a remote village in Spain before the Spanish Civil war changed everything.  It’s a story of a particular kind of innocence that provides no protection against the world of complex national politics.  ‘War,’ Conxa writes ‘is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.  And I was barefoot with my children......’ 

Peirene Press gives us access to literature not usually available in English, written in very different literary traditions - and that’s why I like them so much.  They aren’t manufactured in a literary world dominated by media marketing gurus and the creative writing factories of Britain and the USA.  Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and is a Catalan classic.

It belongs to a much gentler tradition of oral story-telling.  It’s a memoir of a life lived with no big events other than birth, marriage, sickness and death and no narrative hooks other than the desire to know what happens to the shy compliant girl, forced to leave her home because there isn’t enough food to go round. In the early years of the twentieth century, when peasant communities across Europe were still isolated and impoverished, Conxa is sent to live with a childless aunt.

All the bewilderment of someone who has never been out of sight of their home at any time in their life is conjured up in the novel as Conxa is taken to a nearby village to be handed over to her aunt and Uncle.  Because travel can only be afforded on foot, Conxa knows that she will rarely see her parents or brothers and sisters again.

Conxa has been brought up to obey - to keep quiet - not to have an opinion.  Fortunately her uncle and aunt are kindly and she is allowed to marry the man she falls in love with.  Her delight is in the landscape, in the daily tasks of feeding animals, fetching in the hay, cooking food for her family - she has no interest in politics and is happy to believe the priests who tell her that it is God’s will that everyone keeps their allotted places.  But for her husband Jaume, it’s different.  The world Conxa lives in is about to be changed and she has only her own courage and integrity to carry her through.

Other Peirene Press titles I’ve enjoyed:

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul
The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg
Maybe This Time - Alois Hotschnig