3.5 out of 5 stars
On Amazon UK
How I discovered this book: It was a submission to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.
I was not sure how to review this book at first, because it's a
strange one; my opinion of it varied so much, all the way through. It's a
long novella (or a very short novel - I am sure it is no longer than 50K words,
Warning: this review includes plot spoilers.
Set in northern Italy, the story opens with Pietro, heartbroken over
the loss of his wife, Maria, who has just died from cancer. It then goes
back to Maria's childhood in Sicily, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Maria lived in a small village, where life rolled by at the slow pace of fifty years before, and the Roman Catholic church and the family were
the main focus. I adored every word of this part; it's beautifully
written, and I felt so sad when Maria's mother died, even though I'd met her
only briefly. Yes, the characterisation
is that good. The atmosphere of the time is simply yet vividly portrayed,
and I was completely engrossed in the story.
Maria's childhood takes a darker turn when her father remarries, and
her 'uncle' Salvo comes to live with them. Her account of the abuse she
suffered is raw, poignant and utterly believable, and I loved that this part of
the book showed not only the reasons for her silence, but also the way in which
the simple, ill-educated population were manipulated by the rigours of formal
Catholicism. Stunningly good. At this point I was going to give the book 5*,
which is not a rating I give often.
Skipping forward, a marriage is arranged between Maria and Vincenzo,
when she is sixteen and he is in his late twenties. They go to live in Milan, and the marriage is
difficult, interspersed with brief moments of happiness. They live in a squalid apartment, Vinny
struggles with the prejudices of the northern Italians, he gambles, drinks, and
eventually abuses her physically. I felt
this part was a little rushed, and I was sometimes a bit 'hmm' about Maria's
reactions, but I was still enjoying it.
Eventually, Vinny's gambling spirals out of control, and he offers Maria
up as a final wager in desperation to recoup his losses. He loses, and Maria has to leave the house
with her new protector, Matteo.
It's now that the book trails off.
Maria is forced into prositution.
At one point, her flat mate, Lisa, gives her a tablet 'to take the edge
off', which turns out to be LSD. Girls
in that situation are usually given (or choose to take) heroin or cocaine (or
possibly dexedrine, in the 1960s), which give the illusion of wellbeing, not
LSD, which is a powerful hallucinogenic and produces a 'trip', not the sort of
drug that would be offered to 'take the edge' off anything; I suspected Ms
Pryke had not done her research. After a
terrible few months, Maria meets Pietro, a young, professional man who falls
instantly in love with her during their brief afternoon/early evening
meetings. Despite the danger involved
with going up against Italian gangsters and the fact that he hardly knows her,
Pietro hatches a plan to aid her escape, which involves them faking their own
deaths and changing their identities. For
some reason I couldn't fathom, his parents (who, in the staid Italian 1960s, are perfectly okay about him potentially ruining his life for the sake of a prostitute he hardly knows) agree to orchestrate this preposterous plan. I am afraid I could no longer suspend my disbelief
at this point; I thought of at least three more convincing ways to end the
Matteo section even as I was reading it.
The book is wrapped up quickly, with details about Pietro and Maria's
happy new life, her return to Sicily and reunion with her family. Again, it was over too soon. The reunion with Guisy should have been
hugely emotional, but it felt raced through, with all information given about
the people of Maria's childhood like a quick report.
I am giving this book 3.5* but rounding it up to 4* on Amazon because
the beginning was so very, very good, and because Ms Pryke can certainly write;
I read it in one day and looked forward to getting back to it each time. The main problem is that for the depth of plot it needs to be a novel the reader can become immersed in emotionally, not a short catalogue of disastrous
events. Had the second part, with Vinny,
been extended, and the prostitution plot been less outlandish, it could have
been a terrific book. Sometimes, less is
more; this author is talented enough not to need car chases and faked deaths. The atmosphere of Sicily, the stark contrast
between the 1960s and the 21st century, the characterisation and her simple
knack of writing good sentences that keep the reader wanting to turn the pages,
are enough. And I'd definitely read
something else by her.