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Monday, 4 February 2019

Book review: Madonna of the Mountains, Elise Valmorbida (2018)

I literally couldn’t wait to get to the end of this historical melodrama. I had committed to the book by about 20 percent of the way through and then kept giving it the benefit of the doubt as I ploughed doggedly on through crisis after crisis toward the denouement.

The novel follows the life of Maria Vittoria, a woman from the mountains north of the Po River, who gets married to a veteran of WWI named Achille and who moves south to live in the town of Fosso, near Venice. The two run a shop and raise a family of two girls and three boys but their lives become complicated because of the rise of Fascism and then WWII.

Achille turns out to be abusive and he beats his wife until, one day when their eldest son Primo is 17, Primo fights his father out of rage. Achille is denounced for black marketeering and is sent to prison. Maria tries to get her cousin Duilio, a Fascist, to help her get Achille out of jail but he rekindles a childhood romance that had been unconsummated, and seduces her. Valmorbida seeks to have us believe that the sex Maria has with Duilio is better than the sex she has with her nasty husband, but the point is not hammered home with unnecessary force and gets overshadowed by subsequent events.

Eventually, the Americans invade and liberate the peninsula from the Nazis, and then the focus of the story turns to Amelia, the eldest daughter, and her own romance. This turns out to be the biggest challenge of Maria’s life up to this point, and in a way the relationship with Amelia defines how Maria ends up settling her accounts with the world.

There are several things to be said about Maria, who is no better then she should be but who is something of a hero in the author’s mind, especially considered from a feminist perspective. (At the end of the book there is even a series of recipes for the foods that are consumed at various times in the narrative.) Valmorbida is on strong ground when she describes the effects that domestic violence has on the whole family, not only on the wife. Compared to the beatings, the thugs of the extreme right and the rationing that results in the family having to survive on meals of lizards and snails are mild by comparison.

But the Christian homilies that serve as filling when Valmorbida is trying to convey ideas about Maria’s state of mind become a little tiresome at times, and you wonder if this solecism is intentional or not. Compared to the Molly Bloom chapter of ‘Ulysses’ these passages are not strong and more could possibly have been done to accurately convey Maria’s way of thinking to the reader.

There is something about the high-toned drama in ‘The Madonna of the Mountains’ that reminded me while reading it of one of the classic Italian operas of the 19th century. The same fraught emotional register, the same extremes of expression standing in for psychological insight, the same intense focus on reputation and “la bella figura” (making an impression on people) that strikes the observer as being typical of first-generation (and even second-generation) migrant culture in Australia.

I think that this is ultimately a successful novel but it teeters on the edge of celebrating pathos at the expense of true artistic revelation. The poetic vision at times seems a bit close to that of the bodice rippers that our mothers used to read. But then, again, Italian history in the 20th century is nothing if not dramatic, with its militarism, religious fervour, fear of change, and a sort of outlandish brio reserved for the trappings of modernity that runs like a thread through the nation’s culture from the time, in 1909, when Futurism was born. Nothing less than melodrama would have been appropriate to tell the story of a nation that went through so many violent switchbacks and changes of direction from the end of the 19th century when the place was finally, after approximately 1400 years of partition, reunited as a single political entity. 

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