Marina Warner, whose knowledge of art and history combines so happily in many fields, has poured into her third novel a glittering stream of knowledge. There is so much scholarship here, so much lived experience, such light and colour and feeling, that it cannot but be enriching. Indigestion, too, is a result of such concentrated fare and I would be surprised if many readers could swear that they had not pushed something to the side of their plate. Many I am sure will avoid the spicy bits, swimming in juices; others will pick them out and leave the rest. Politics will pall with some and with others domesticity will drag. Opera buffs and artists will be well-served with a feast for which not all palates have acquired the taste. Others like myself will fasten with tireless fascination upon the ancient lore: the ill-omens (spilling oil, dreaming of butchers’ shops), the charms (three Hail Marys’ if you see an owl in daylight, metal sewn in the hem prevents fainting), and the unlucky (leave a hat on the bed and Death harvests the next to sleep in it).
The Lost Father is the story of a Southern Italian family from that peninsula whose main purpose, for most Europeans, is the provision of a heel for the foot Italy. It is a small and ancient world, full of superstitions and pride, rituals and rules, prohibitions and penalties. The Pittagora family arc comfortably off; Davide, the father of the title, is a lawyer. In a planned structure that is imaginative and unusual, a woman is writing the story of this, her mother’s family, using her mother’s reminiscences, scraps of family memory and her grandfather’s diary, to recreate the life of three generations – or five at its limits. It stretches back to Davide and his sisters’ life with their parents; it reaches forward to his daughter Fantina, letting her horrid grandson Nicholas stuff himself with chocolate biscuits while she mulls over the past for the benefit of her daughter Anna, who is trying to piece the story together.
So present-day London gives way to Italy in 1931, or to America in 1920, or again to Italy in 1912, or America now, a tentative collage of remembering and piecing together, of guess-work and calculation. The writer has the advantage of us, in knowing the outlines of the plot when we do not, and it is not always comfortable to make these leaps in generation, trying to keep track of places and people with whom we are not yet familiar. The careful plan is only clear if one goes back to study it afterwards, tardily understanding what before has been confusing. It is somewhat galling to meet words I do not know; I swither (ah! ask an Irishman about that one) between annoyance at being stumped and the seduction of new words, which are so numberless and yet so endlessly collectable, like shining pebbles. There is challenge here certainly, in many guises, for in several ways it is more like fact than fiction and there are so many things to learn and savour. At the same time it is difficult to interleave the story with a mass of information without subtracting from one or the other. The novel gets off to a slow start and at times the effort behind the knowledge shows through uneasily. What a lot of questions had to be asked, how closely interrogated the men in the author’s life who must have supplied the anatomical sensations, how carefully checked the dates for the introduction of new fashions and technology. And yet how enthralling so much of it is!
One of the happiest perceptions in the book is the understanding of sisterhood. Warner displays great sensitivity to the anxious, protective love of sisters, to the· hierarchical arrangements between elder and younger, to the closeness that is untouched by years apart. Above all fates, Rosalba fears that of the despised zitella, the spinster; her younger sister Caterina suffers agonies for her, hugging herself with delighted relief when hope comes in the shape of an assignation. In the close detailing of the sororal relationships here, those deprived of them will discover what they arc missing.
I particularly enjoyed the intricate descriptions of the passeggiata, that ritual parade that the Italians put on in the evening around the piazza, but invested here with all the significances and nuances of native custom, secrets hidden from the foreign observer but full of information, of interest, of insight. The author conveys with vivid accuracy the suppressed excitement, the watchful chaperones, the hooded glances, the physical tension. She has a marvellous eye for interaction between females, the small gestures that recall animal grooming, a friend tucking a curl in, an aunt twitching a thread from a skirt, a sister fixing a hem, mouth full of pins. These, like her evocation of the cradled comforts of childhood, arc delight-fully drawn and finely felt. The landscape and the houses, the town and the people come alive, spun of similes and painter’s palette, every word beautifully worked to transfer this teeming canvas from the author’s mind to the reader’s. The car fails sometimes for the register of a voice, but the eye never.
As Anna looks back at this newfound, long-lost family of hers, the past looks full love and sunlight, the present no such matter. But the dead arc hard to fault and hard to find, though easy to invent. The lost father has covered his tracks pretty effectively, aided by his descendants who re-fashion him to their own liking. The human heart has learned from the sun-dial and records the best bits.