11, 12 and 13: A Jest of God; Wilding; This Rough Magic

I’m less behind with #20booksofsummer than it looks, but I’m way behind on reviews.

41xly8j7thl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Margaret Laurence is one of the unsung giants of Canadian fiction. The afterword to this edition of A Jest of God is by Margaret Atwood, who acknowledges her own artistic debt to Laurence. The novel concerns Rachel Cameron, a primary-school teacher who has found it impossible to follow her older sister’s lead and flee small-town Ontario for marriage and the city. Tethered to an aging, passively demanding mother, and rapidly approaching middle age and spinsterhood, Rachel’s only real friend is Calla, a fellow teacher. When a man she remembers from childhood comes back to town for the summer, they embark on an affair that, although it doesn’t end happily, gives Rachel the courage and self-confidence she needs to change her life for good.

The interesting thing about Rachel is that her defining characteristic is a terror of embarrassment. She’s not even generally embarrassed by the things she does; she’s too much in control of herself; but other people’s weaknesses, humanity, foolishness, lack of control or inhibition, can bring her to tears of shame. It is as though she’s emotionally stuck at thirteen, consumed by humiliation at the slightest imperfection. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life: still living at home, still at the whim of a parent, she might as well be a teenager. It threatens her relationships before Nick, her lover, comes to town; her shame after attending an evangelical meeting at Calla’s church nearly destroys the friendship between the two women (and Calla, we know, is a woman not without courage in facing her own life). Although Rachel has to face a crisis of a nature which I tend to find irritating in fiction (no more for fear of spoilers, but go read my review of The Illumination of Ursula Flight), in her case the need to make a decision is removed by fate, or rather by plotting. In a way, this was frustrating; in another, it felt necessary, because the romance with Nick, although positioned as being central to the book, really isn’t. It is simply the tool that Rachel needs to lever herself out of one life and into another, which, by the end, she does, an effort described in prose that is both moving and beautiful.

240060

Isabella Tree’s husband, Charlie Burrell, is the owner of Knepp Castle, in Sussex. Up until the year 2000, Isabella and Charlie were still attempting to make the estate profitable through traditional farming methods. But in that year, they spoke to a tree expert about the state of the Knepp Oak – a tree so old it was likely fully grown when Elizabeth I visited the park – and his advice, together with the steeply declining profitability of traditional farming, even when subsidised, pushed them into the idea of rewilding their land. (“Rewilding” is a contentious term. The aim is not to have an aim at all, but rather to cease the intensive human management of a landscape and see what happens. Because Tree and Burrell did retain a certain amount of control by introducing old native species, or approximations thereof, like Tamworth pigs and Dartmoor ponies, and because the “original state” of the historic English landscape is not at all certain, Tree is not very comfortable using the word, but she admits it is probably the best one we have at the moment.)

Wilding is an excellent book: richly informative not only about what we do and don’t know about English landscape (very little; evidence for heavy forest cover in prehistoric and medieval Britain, Tree demonstrates, is at best partial, and has often been interpreted partially, by historians and archaeologists with ideological axes to grind), but also about the characteristics of particular species in a landscape (she explains the benefit of the Tamworth pigs rooting in rich soil by the side of their drive, the incalculable long-term effects of leaving low-lying land uncultivated to create aquatic habitats, even the virtues of the humble dung beetle). She is also never less than honest about the hard pushback that these schemes generally receive from the neighbours. Most of the land surrounding theirs in Sussex is farmed, and English farmers in particular tend to be strongly antipathetic to “wasting” good land; there is a national narrative about being an island, and the hazard of food shortages, and the need to make every inch of ground productive in some way, which she unpicks with skill and sympathy, if also frustration. But what she also conveys is the utter shortsightedness of this approach, the dead end into which English and European farming in general is running at full speed. Above all, she is passionately specific about the benefits of rewilding schemes to land health, biodiversity, and the health (and economies) of the humans who live around rewilded areas. Wilding is a seriously important book on an urgent topic, and it is also highly readable. It ought to be put into the hands of agriculture ministers and rural funding bodies, as well as those of interested civilians.

51pyv2bpvkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Sometimes the circumstances under which you read a book are so flawlessly matched that the book and the environment meld together in your memory, and you know you’ll never be able to remember one without remembering the other. I’m so pleased to have read my first Mary Stewart under such circumstances: prostrate on a Saturday in the middle of a heatwave, window wide open, spooning raspberry sorbet into my gaping mouth, refusing to move from the bed except to go make more iced coffee. This Rough Magic, which is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin, could not have been a more perfect read for that particular day. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine: she knows she’s barely third-rate on the stage, though she turns out to be an excellent dissembler when it comes to enticing a known murderer on a day trip.

Any initial skepticism I might have had about Mary Stewart dropped away within minutes of starting to read: she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes, and the liberal sprinkling of references to The Tempest throughout the book adds a lot of charm. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty, while keeping the melodrama under control. An excellent introduction to her work; I look forward to continuing with The Ivy Tree and The Gabriel Hounds. (This is much to the satisfaction of my colleague Faye, who wrote her PhD on Stewart and is probably the world expert on her work.)

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Moll&Sarah&Alfred&Rupert

…and Grace and Lia and Sky. Herewith, the last few weeks of reading, not including #20booksofsummer titles.

51y5ybibh4l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Sometimes I just miss the eighteenth century. Not in a way that can be assuaged by contemporary historical fiction; in a way that can only really be dealt with by reading a novel rife with variant spellings like “chuse” and the persistent Capitalisation of every Noun, for Reasons. Daniel Defoe and I have a vexed history – the first of his novels that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe, which bored me almost to tears, although possibly this was because I was eight years old and not equipped to find interest in Crusoe’s devotion to the Protestant ethic through list-making, material culture, and stewardship of resources. Moll Flanders, though, I’ve always got on well with. She narrates her own story with vim, and an almost total lack of shame: her initial fall from grace, a seduction by the son of a woman in whose house she lives as a companion, is something about which she expresses regret, but mostly because she doesn’t “manage” the affair well and fails to get a promise of marriage and security. “Management” is essential in Moll’s world; the word crops up again and again. It’s interesting to consider its use as set against the idea of household management as a married woman’s primary duty; for Moll, “managing” is also a matter of maximising efficiency, but in her case it is the efficiency of graft, or theft, or of the socially approved form of prostitution that constitutes the marriage market. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes her to fall to actual crime: for most of the novel, she might be considered immoral (making various marriages for money and advantage, including the notorious incestuous one), but she doesn’t do much that’s illegal. The career of thieving comes much later, at a point where she’s not sufficiently sure of her own youth and beauty to try marrying again. The other delightful thing about the novel, of course, is that she ends up all right, with a husband she likes and a large, regular income from a plantation in Virginia. Roxana, a later Defoe novel, explores the darker and more realistic consequences of being a fallen woman, but Moll Flanders is like a glorious fantasy of transgression. I’ve always rather liked it for that.

the_reading_groupfrontpanelfinalThe Reading Party is set in the 1970s, not my favourite decade to read about but in this case made interesting because it was the time at which previously all-male colleges in Oxford and Cambridge began to admit not only female students, but female dons. Sarah Addleshaw is Fenella Gentleman’s protagonist, a social historian who becomes the first female don in the history of Wadham College. She’s selected to help an older, crustier colleague with the college’s annual reading party, in which a handful of students are chosen to go off with two tutors to a house in Cornwall for a week before their exams, to revise. (This tradition doesn’t exist in all Oxford colleges – it didn’t in mine – and I can think of many, many more pitfalls to it than advantages, but that’s by the by.) Her instinctive attraction to a Rhodes Scholar, Tyler, must be balanced against her constant awareness of being a test case, and her professional role as an academic mentor. On occasion, Sarah’s innocence about the subtlety of male belittling almost feels disingenuous; we’re so aware of it now that it feels remarkable that it was ever so widely accepted. And there’s a little too much in the way of non-dialogue exclamation points and quotation marks (the latter, I imagine, intended as signposts for readers not familiar with Oxbridge slang, but jarring.) It’s a fascinating view, though, into a time relatively near my own but which seems to have been governed by rules and convictions so vastly different that it might as well be alien. Is there any time more exotic than the recent past? And Sarah, frustrating though she sometimes is, is a doughty heroine; you want her to do well without losing her spark, and on that score, the epilogue satisfies.

53d8a8d0f1a13adde9ec4476a1b570bbI saw the film of The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, years before reading the book. Christopher Nolan takes some liberties with plot and structure, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty good thing; Priest’s ideas work on their own, but they work slightly better when Nolan tweaks them. The heart of the story is still the rivalry between Victorian stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, and their achievement of a trick that appears to involve teleportation. Priest includes a framing story that features Angier’s and Borden’s descendants in the present day (which, if we assume it’s contemporaneous with the book’s writing, is the mid-1990s). It’s a further angle on the rivalry, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the tantalising hint of resonance established by the report that sends Borden’s descendant in search of Angier’s (a potential news story about someone being in two places at once) is never resolved. The science-fiction element of the story is represented by Nikola Tesla, who makes a brief appearance as the inventor of a machine that harnesses electrical energy in the air; much as in The Bedlam Stacks, the time period of The Prestige muddies the waters about whether what’s happening is science as we’d understand it, or an illusion resulting from the limitations of Victorian knowledge. This is the first of Priest’s books I’ve read, but checking out his back catalogue after finishing it, it seems obvious that he has an artistic obsession with twins and duplicates; several of his other novels, including The Affirmation and The Separation (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), use twinning as a device. Ideas of illusion, deception, and truth are so closely bound up with notions of identity that, at least in The Prestige, Priest carries it off, but it makes me wonder where he can possibly go with the same themes in other books.

81j4lg4hk8lMisogynistic dystopias are kind of where it’s at with culture both high and low at the moment. I think we’re either rapidly approaching saturation point, or got there some time ago (we sure as hell have passed the station where we should all have been given a collective run-down on the differences between “dystopic” and “post-apocalyptic”, two different concepts whose frequent and inappropriate blurring is the ridiculously petty hill I am prepared to die on.) Sophie Mackintosh’s entry in the genre is better than the text on the hardback back cover would lead you to believe (it reads as though it’s quoted directly from the novel, which it isn’t; Mackintosh’s prose is better, if not very interesting.) Her take involves three sisters—Grace, Lia, and the little one, Sky—and their parents, King and Mother. They live on an island off the mainland of somewhere that’s probably North America. They have been taught from a young age that the world beyond the horizon is poisoned, that their bodies and minds must be trained for assault by sickness as well as by the actions of men. It’s implied that they used to run some kind of cult there, one that appealed mostly to vulnerable women, but that no one comes for cures anymore; it’s just the girls and their parents. King vanishes without trace one day, and shortly afterwards, three men appear on the island. These two events precipitate a crisis in the girls’ worldviews, particularly that of Lia, who embarks on an affair with one of the newcomers.

There’s enough misogyny floating around that I’m never going to say we don’t need a book like this, but The Water Cure partakes of a vagueness that makes it feel generic, and therefore less urgent than many of its kind. Perhaps we’re truly not meant to know whether to read it as a speculative fiction or as disturbing realism, but the material about controlling one’s body and emotions, turning to self-harm as a form of release, and the manipulation of young women by older men is all stuff that’s been done before. What can make a book like this intensely compelling is the voice in which it’s told, but that doesn’t happen here, firstly because the narration is parceled out to three separate characters—for no readily apparent reason, like for instance a plot point where interpretation can be altered by different points of view—and secondly because none of those voices are differentiated from one another. Another way of injecting freshness into a story of this type is narrative structure, or a radical social approach (both of which are present, for instance, in Naomi Alderman’s The Power), but The Water Cure, for all its baton-switching, is a linear story, and its (tiny) social world is nothing we haven’t seen before in documentaries about cult leaders and in our own experiences with controlling men. The question with a book like this is whether holding up a mirror to experience is enough; does The Water Cure need, necessarily, to be Saying Something or Making A Statement? Perhaps not, at least not in a moral sense; but aesthetically, as a piece of art, it’s fatally weakened by bringing little new to the table.

10. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

36991825A new Kate Atkinson novel is An Event. Transcription, forthcoming in September, is her first since A God In Ruins, which (at least for me) tore up the WWII novel playbook and should have been on the Women’s Prize longlist that year. This is also a WWII novel, at least in part, and also approaches the conflict sidelong, in the character of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited by MI5 at the age of seventeen. She is a typist, seconded to a mission that aims to ferret out fifth-columnists and divert their pro-German sentiments into a harmless channel. To that end, Godfrey Toby, an agent whose interwar activities no one knows much about, is assigned to pose as an undercover Gestapo officer, a flat in Pimlico’s Dolphin Square serving as a base for his “informers”, most of them lower-middle-class people motivated by ignorant anti-Semitic resentment. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door, transcribing the conversations that are recorded through the wall. During the course of her mission, something appalling happens, and after the war ends – as Juliet takes a job in Schools programming at the BBC – a series of coincidences makes her begin to wonder whether what she did in the war is coming back to haunt her.

The mystery of what happened is not the most compelling part of Transcription, which some readers are going to see as a weakness. I don’t. By far the most interesting aspect of the book is Juliet, whose completely unflappable exterior doesn’t so much mask desperate paddling under the surface as it does a sense of extraordinary detachment. She loses her mother young (just before her recruitment, in fact), and her father has never been a presence. Although it’s not dwelt on, Atkinson reminds us every so often that Juliet has been, amongst other things, a chambermaid; she has done hard, physical work, and been unsure of where the next meal might be coming from. Being swept up by MI5 doesn’t seem to make her star-struck, or eager to please: she views the situation more as a turn of the wheel of fortune, something that has happened to her and which she might as well be doing as anything else. In her initial interview for the typist job, she does nothing but lie, apparently uninterested in making the sort of “good impression” a young woman in the ’40s might be expected to prioritise. It’s the speed and thoroughness of the lying, we infer, that gets her the job. The other fascinating aspect of Transcription is the glimpse into the post-war BBC; it’s not quite W1A, but the institution has clearly always had one foot in the realm of pure absurdity. (A delightful problem arises when a voice actor on a brief educational segment meant to showcase a “day in the life” of a medieval village is caught on air uttering, quietly but distinctly, “fuck fuck fuck fuckity-fuck”.)

Reading this shortly after Cressida Connolly’s After the Party was an especially constructive experience. Where Connolly’s British Fascists are county-set types, men who work in banking and their wives who throw themed dinner parties, Atkinson’s are grubbier and more depressing: women called Dot and Betty and Trude, men who work on the railways (probably more useful to a horde of invading Nazis). The appalling event is an accident, precipitated by carelessness; it’s almost bathetic, the realisation that although the fifth-columnists next door seem foolish and ignorant, it is possible to be simultaneously silly and dangerous. And, running under it all, there’s another thing that Juliet does for MI5, which the reader suspects is the real heart of the book; but our gaze is never directed there. Among the period details of dress and slang and food, Atkinson has placed a serpent of a plot point. You might have to read the book twice before you tread on it. But you’ll probably want to.

 

Three Things, June 2018

IMG_3084

With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’m halfway through 20 Books of Summer, which is satisfying, and nearly caught up on reviews too. I’ve also started a singing gig at a church in west London, though, so I’ve actually been reading a lot of music. It’s a quartet or a solo every other week—they don’t have the budget for more, and I’m pretty happy having at least half my Sundays free while earning gin money the other half. Learning repertoire has always been one of my favourite things to do; last week the director of music introduced me to two Haydn duets from The Creation, which is a generally ridiculous piece (it was first written in English, then translated into German, then retranslated into English from the German, so the text is even more affected than your usual Georgian oratorio), but the duets are lovely. Here‘s one (ends at 3:45), and here‘s the other (ends at 3:09).

Looking: We finally bought a TV license. I resent having to buy a TV license when we don’t actually own a television, and I particularly resent having to pay the full year’s amount when we’re only making the purchase in June. On the upside, I suppose, this means we can watch the World Cup (which we’re not), and, um, reruns of Planet Earth or whatever. What’s good on the BBC these days? Netflix is more of my go-to at the moment; I’ve finally caught all the way up with Drag Race, have been amusing myself with the shonky-ness of Nailed It, and am under strict instructions to start watching Queer Eye, like, yesterday.

Thinking: Everyone else in Britain is freaking out about Brexit, and you know, I get it, but right now I’m way more worried about Justice Kennedy’s announcement that he’s retiring from the Supreme Court. Any Trump nominee will be anti-choice, and that shifts the balance of voting power on the Court; although, as my mother points out, Chief Justice Roberts surprised everyone with his vote on the Affordable Care Act, I still think it’s wise to prepare for a near future (let’s say eighteen months) in which safe, legal abortion is inaccessible in probably half of the American states. I know that at least one woman in my family received an illegal abortion, before Roe v. Wade passed, and it is beyond gutting to realise that, in two generations, we’ll have come full circle. I actually don’t have the words for this one.

09. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea

cover-jpg-rendition-242-374It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.

Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.

None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.

Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.

08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.

07. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida

9780571336333One particular risk of having a reading list or challenge is that it’s easily possible to read several books in a row that, while fine, don’t really excite you; that you’re reading because there’s no reason to put them down and they’re doing their job, but which you don’t feel a pang parting from when you reach work, or the end of your lunch break. This has happened to me: MayA Station On the Path…, and The Waters and the Wild all ended up three-star reads, quite all right but not especially haunting, and not propulsive while I was reading them. (Actually, The Waters and the Wild was, but the structure did most of the work; I found that even as I was racing through the final pages, the relentlessly circuitous prose was frustrating.) The upside of a patch of average reading is that when you do find something emotionally compelling, it breaks upon you like a wave of delight. The Madonna of the Mountains is a book like that. It’s quiet, but it’s brilliant.

It starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. She’s twenty-five, alarmingly old to be unmarried. Her papà has gone to find her a husband. He returns with a man – Achille Montanari, tall and strong and wrapped in glory as a result of vaguely-defined heroism in the last war – and they marry. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: her marriage, her children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. It finishes with her family’s eventual emigration to Australia in 1950. In between these events, Valmorbida demonstrates, life goes on: the war isn’t the point of the novel any more than the question of whether Maria Vittoria will have a husband, a question solved in chapter one. As a result of its refusal to be “about” any one particular event, The Madonna of the Mountains feels both universal (fears about infidelity, a child’s health, how to protect your family in uncertain times) and deeply, richly specific: Valmorbida is interested in process, whether that’s washing laundry in the stream, raising silkworms from eggs, or the arduous hunt for, and fiddly preparation of, snails to eat when there’s no other meat.

Because we’re so deeply embedded in its physical world, The Madonna of the Mountains also feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Third-rate historical fiction forces us to care about characters either because we identify with them (often because they have political opinions much like our own, which are suspiciously progressive for their own time, as in The Burning Chambers), or because they’re forced to endure trial after trial, which requires a grudging sort of respect from the reader. Here, neither of those things occurs: Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, a God-fearing Catholic countrywoman whose husband hits her on occasion but whom she will never dream of leaving, who feeds her eldest son first, and who disinherits a daughter with pain but no regret when she brings dishonour to the household. The challenges she faces are both personal and political (indeed, in Fascist Italy, the two are often the same), and in every adversity, her responses are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.