Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Daughter of Sienna" by Marina Fiorato

Siena, take a bow.

In Marina Fiorato's "The Daughter of Siena: A Novel,"
the principal characters turn out bit players, and the Tuscan city, a star.

Set in 18th century Italy, this is a tale of sanguinary political tribes, horseracing, love unrequited, and palace intrigue with a Sienese flavor.

The novel charts the slow-forming alliance of the low-born Riccardo Bruni, a maiden groomed for sale via marriage, Pia Tolomei, an ineffective duchess, and a street urchin, in their battle against some treasonous nobles bent on sacking Siena for their own enrichment.

"The Daughter of Siena" is as hermetically sealed as any self-respecting provincial European municipality.

The author effectively weaves Siena's ever-present swallows, rival "contrade" or neighborhoods' vibrant colors, and legendary "Palio" race -- the city's landmarks and identifying symbols -- into the stuff of the story.

The dome, towers, scalloped central square, urban landscape, pageantry and peculiar ways of the provincial burg not only inform the story, but are the very stuff it is made of.

The novel's tightly wound plot makes it difficult to do a summary without giving things away.

Perhaps it is enough to say that the cast are introduced, en masse, in the first Palio of summer, and the city's fate, which all will enlist to influence, is tied to the outcome of a second run in August.

"It is a little risky," says Pia. "To bet a city on a horse race."

Arrayed against the motley, but loveable, crew recruited to save the rein of the de Medici clan in town are some sinister city fathers with bloody predilections and a difficult-to-crack plan for seizing power from the Duchess Violante de Medici, of whom the omniscient narrator comments:

"She was aware of the new thinking, the new sciences, the enlightenment of the world, but she devoured instead legends and tales of old, because she herself was preserved in the amber of a bygone era."

As are the literary passions of Ms. Fiorato.

When Riccardo apprises Pia of so much that has occurred during her imprisonment at the hands of evil-doers, she observes, "He might have been telling her fairy tale by the fire, so incredible did it sound to her ears."

A fairy tale for adults, wherein the history and culture of a unique location are skillfully strung in narrative threads the writer successfully resolves, without the facts about Siena and its history ever appearing inorganic or forced.

The narration is rendered in a straight-up grammatical English and the whole is well-polished.

Subjectively speaking, highwayscribery prefers things a little raggedy, whereas this story stays between the lines, ties up all loose ends through sensible set-ups that can, at times, appear obvious. The resolutions comes across as neat and pat.

But that is mostly a matter of taste, not the skill so amply on display in this story of characters trying to cope with the weight of Siena, and it's history, on their efforts to hack individual paths through Italian life.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"I Could Love You," by William Nicholson

If you are middle class, or doing a little better, "I Could Love You," is not so much an escape as it is a mirror.

William Nicholson's characters can be difficult to distinguish from one another. They have generic names (Alice, Laura, Jack), are all white, and each luxuriating in the search for meaning or LOVE.

They talk similarly as well. Idioms, slang, and varied voices are not the author's strong suit, but narration itself changes pitch and tone as his assemblage of characters take turns under the literary microscope.

"I Could Love You," comes off as one of those ensemble movies that Hugh Grant stars in, featuring lots of people living in close proximity, yet only mildly conscious of one another.

"Love Actually," comes to mind.

And that's the set-up. Sometimes paths cross unexpectedly and narrative flames are sparked as a result.

This is a zeitgeist piece including references to Facebook and the MP3 player. If you are wondering whether you'll have much in common with these folks, you will, unless you're the kind who helps people in Africa or works as an undercover agent in the war on terror.

Whether you'll care about them is another question, but Nicholson is a writer of true command, a deft hand relaying a story that seems milquetoast on the surface, but offers edgy and insightful moments, meanings, and passages.

"Once you know that you don't know," he writes, "everything changes. The absurdity of so much of our lives ceases to be a puzzle. Of course we're ridiculous. Of course we make fools of ourselves. Why wouldn't we? We are fools. We know so little. But are not any the less loveable for all that."

One of the novel's strengths is its multi-generational tack. Literature has never scanted young love, but Nicholson renders the complexities and epiphanies of middle-age very nicely.

For example, Tom Redknapp finds himself oddly removed from a big issue at the hospital where he performs plastic surgeries. As the conference room debate rages, he is thinking about his extramarital affair:

"In some strange way he feels as if he's started his life over again. This time round there's no drive to achieve, no deferring of pleasure in the interests of later gain. This time, the pleasure."

The art world comes in for some particularly pointed observations the indoctrinated, and not-so-indoctrinated, may find provocative.

Nicholson's portrait of the forgotten and declining painter Anthony Armitage is a strong departure and counterpoint to the rest of the youthful, mainstream ensemble.

But as the title suggests, love is the big issue here and the characters' experiences are varied enough to offer succor, advice, and cautionary tales for those who like, enjoy, desire, or think a lot about the big L.

The author does an intelligent job of putting something across that is light and entertaining, yet somehow substantive and unsettling.

His larger point is best summed up in this passage, also from the brain of Tom Redknapp, daydreaming of his paramour who is no great shakes in the looks department:

"Nothing to write home about. And there's the wonder of it. Beauty turns out not to create desire after all. Desire creates beauty."

With its many contemporary and hip references, "I Could Love You," is not bound for the classics shelf, but its author was not trying to achieve that.

Still, what Nicholson sets out to do, he does well in this easy and entertaining read.

"The Wrong Blood," by Manuel de Lope

Manuel de Lope's The Wrong Blood is tough to review without giving up the ghost, literally.

It is the story of three people bound by a series of shared spawned by the Fascists deathly advance through the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War.

Situated for a few passages at the front, the novel mostly broods in the enclosed worlds of two houses on the coast: "Los Sauces" and "Las Cruces."

In one of them live two victims of the conflict, in the other a lame doctor, whose affliction allows him to escape the generalized carnage, yet still be affected by its perversions

The young lawyer Goitia, looking for a place to study, returns to his childhood home at "Las Cruces" whic his deceased mother has left to her life-long house servant, Maria Antonia.

The biggest secret is revealed to the reader at the three-quarter mark, though not necessarily to the young lawyer.

But his rare visit, coupled with the advancing age of the doctor and the house-servant, provide a last chance to rewrite a small history, and the tension to keep from, or unleash upon him the truths they know, form the crux of the conflict.

"Between them," De Lope notes, "the doctor and the old woman could awaken the inexistent memory of young Goitia, assuming that young Goitia had any interest in the stories the old woman and the doctor could tell him."

The path toward that resolution is dominated by an unnamed narrator with no dog in the fight being covered. The action and exchanges between principal characters are employed to sparing effect.

Most of the narrative progress is unspoken, but latent in the air each character is sharing; air rife with narrator's presentiments and ornate musings.

"The Wrong Blood," is mostly back-story, the young man's arrival provoking "the powerful flood of memories" that had "overflowed the sluice gates."

It is a running commentary on what the trio have endured, what they are thinking at any given moment in the history; a history not presented chronologically, rather leapfrogging back and forth along the line of time.

The author's focus is trained mostly on ambience, on environment, on the oppressive realities that precede each character's birth. There are not very many choices available to these people, and still less offering a dignified path.

The liner notes for this Other Press addition quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez deeming De Lope's work, "a celebration of our language."

Since that language is Spanish, the consumer of the English-language effort must take the master at his word. Or at least the word of translator John Cullen who teases a wide vocabulary, a rich thicket of words, and somber palette out of whatever De Lope intended.

In the opening passages, the author depicts the roses of 1936 to be "plump as wet nurses breast."

Later, in a passage more characteristic of, than exception to, "The Wrong Blood, De Lope writes that, "The curtains of rain in the distant, dull-gray clouds bursting over the sea filled her with nostalgia, because, for her, the weeping of the heavens was the ultimate poetical sensation, and nothing compared with the lyrical emotions of abandonment and dispossession that the rain promised.'

In this fashion does the omnipresent narrator mostly hold forth on details and objects surrounding, giving them prior lives, symbolic charges; casting them as witnesses to both a tragedy and a forced permutation in an otherwise natural order by class and the war's outcome.

These can be historical details, the product of fine research, such as the "strange straw wraps used in those days to cover champagne bottles with a kind of cape or hood that protected the glass," or much broader and social in aspect.

Describing how the ill-fated Captain Herraiz and his bride Isabel made it work, the writer observes, "It was said that certain in those years were happy, cautious, and dissolute, and those terms included everything that a judicious and seductive mixture of good breeding and carnality entailed."

If this novel is back-story, it is also a tale of the rearguard, of noncombatants flailing about in a great and sudden disruption. Del Lope conjures it as a place no less harrowing than the front.

For more than power and money, the meaning of each being upended by the times, it is the war which forces the hope-killing obligation to compromise one highest aspirations.

The doctor, by way of example, settles for "the peace of the weak and the just, and it granted him the tranquility of opening the gate and limping back to his house to pour himself of cognac. There was no sadder peace than that."