Every family has stories which are passed down through the generations. Typically, they are unconsciously reworked at each retelling and in the end – who knows? That is partly what Marina Warner’s rather magnificent, 1987 novel The Lost Father is about.
I first read it soon after publication, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and I still have the hardback copy I bought then. It’s a family saga but the narrative is anything but linear so you have to concentrate, especially at the beginning.
Anna is a London-based independent woman of the 1980s and a single mother. She works in a museum threatened with closure, where she is a collector and curator of ephemera. Her family was part of the post-war Italian diaspora and she has become so intrigued by its history that she is trying to write a book about it.
Gradually we learn that, in the first quarter of the 20th century, Maria-Filippa married Davide to whom were born four daughters and a son in a traditional, quite remote part of southern Italy. Anna’s mother was the youngest daughter so these were her Italian grandparents. Davide, a gentle soul who loved opera, died while still relatively young, apparently in a duel for honour with his brash friend Tomasso – or perhaps it wasn’t quite like that?
The flashbacks into Anna’s work-in-progress present a masterful picture of how southern Italy was and how it changed with the arrival of the fascists. There is, for instance, a desperately sad moment when the widowed Maria-Filppa is forced to give up her wedding ring for “the cause”. I remember finding this upsetting in 1987 and it moved me again this time.
The girls, as Anna imagines them, are all different – and in some cases maybe not quite as pure as convention and the Catholic church expects them to be – with ambitions and longings, even as they launder, cook and sew with their mother. It’s very evocative and atmospheric. You can almost smell the laundry and the vegetables cooking. And of course their adult lives eventually become very different from the world of their childhood.
At the very end of the novel Anna goes to California to visit one of her – now prosperous – aunts and meets the extended and extensive family which now spans more generations. And at last she discovers the “truth” but we left reflecting that truth is a slippery concept especially in family and folk memory when things change but retain an inner truth of their own.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott