Try as I might, and believe me I have, I just cannot get into this series of novels as much as it seems I should. The accolades, the five star reviews, the almost overwhelming frenzy that readers have towards Elena and Lila – all tell me that I must be missing something. I agree, unreservedly, that the writing is sublime, and of the three books that I have read so far, this latest one is a knock out. The author captures the love-hate nature of female friendship so achingly beautiful; the different routes women in post war Italy take to escape their destinies at birth of being wives, mothers, punching bags, without voices or means; the polarising politics of communism and fascism – all of it excellent. But I think it is because I don’t actually like any of the characters that I have such trouble in liking these novels. I expect I am supposed to like Elena and Lila – after all they both seem to be doing their best to improve their lives, they are intelligent, arouse sympathy, strong and feisty. A lot happens to each of the women in this third book, covering the years of their late twenties/early thirties. Elena is now a successful author, married to Pietro and mother to two girls. She is continually conflicted in her role as mother/wife versus her ongoing desire to be a successful writer. Lila, on the other hand, continues to live with Enzo and works in the salami factory until her protests at the factory’s appalling working conditions leads to a major change in direction for her, Enzo and her son. A lot happens in this novel, probably the most action packed of the three books and for me, it is the best of the three. But such heavy going, slow moving story telling makes me feel like I am wading through heavy muddy waters.
On a recent trip to the West Coast, on a bleak, drizzly, cold spring day, we drove up the steep and windy hill to the plateau where a hundred years or so ago around 2000 people lived in the mining town of Denniston. It was a busy little community, with churches, shops, pubs, a school, people coming and going. I can't imagine what the place looked like or how thriving it was, as there was nothing about it that was remotely attractive the day we went! We went to the coal museum in Westport, where there is lots of history about Denniston and other early mining communities. The woman there suggested I track this book down, as it gives a very vivid picture of what life was like in this place. And so I did and very glad to have done so.
Places like Denniston, with their inhospitable environment and living conditions, places with difficult or impossible access, places with few women and children to provide those qualities of civilisation, attracted a certain type of person. Generally desperate, broken physically or mentally, impoverished, entrepreneurial, risk takers, but above all tough. One night a young woman with a colourful past and her five-year-old daughter, Rose, ride the crazy journey in a coal wagon up the mountain to the tiny settlement of Denniston. The mother, Eva, is after her man and his supposed stash of gold that she wants a slice of. Young Rose has spent her whole life being on the run with her mother, so Denniston is just another ugly, uncivilised dump that she finds herself in. But being a five-year-old girl with a smile and charm that can melt the toughest miner, she quickly finds her way into the hearts of the locals, and ultimately finds her place in this tough and lonely place.
But a lot of West Coast rain has to fall before things come right for Rose. The coal mine is at the centre of this story: without the mine and the miners there is no Denniston. How the small community deals with accidents, death, fires, industrial action, the rise of the unions were the sorts of things going on in many frontier towns and communities at this time. The West Coast in New Zealand has a reputation for breeding them tough, and this outstanding story, based on real lives and events, deserves to be read and enjoyed simply to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for where many NZers have come from.
This was a little unusual and unexpected, but very clever, quite delightful, leaving you with just the best feeling inside by the end. Elsa, is almost eight, extraordinarily bright, some would say unbearably precocious. The story is told entirely through her eyes; the very small world that almost eight-year-old children inhabit. What is ordinary, mundane, rational, and every day to a grown up – other people, events, places - in the imagination of a child become something else entirely. I was reminded so many times while reading this of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime’, where adult stuff is dealt with in the child mind in a way that us adults just would or could not even begin to comprehend.
Elsa is coping with quite a lot of adult stuff in this story. Her parents have separated, with her mother now living with George and pregnant with Halfie – of unknown sex, but half Mum-half George. Her Dad lives with Lizette and her two children. She loves her Dad very much, finds her relationship with him a little strained, and is sad that she doesn’t see as much of him as she would like. Elsa lives with her mother and George in a big old house that has been divided up into apartments where assorted other people live. Including her grandmother who is the most important person in her small world. Granny is the most marvellous elderly woman, completely mad, reckless, and unrestrained in her attitude to life and her actions. She was once a doctor, working in war and disaster zones around the world. Naturally over the decades this has all landed her into numerous trouble spots – both physically and figuratively! Child and elderly woman adore each other. Granny is a storyteller and has created for Elsa the Land-of-Almost-Awake, with magical kingdoms, characters and adventures. In the real world where Elsa is struggling with the changes in her family, is bullied and under attack at school, to be able to escape with Granny into her magic place is the one thing she holds onto.
One day, Granny goes away again. Before she goes she gives Elsa a letter which sets Elsa on a magical adventure of her own, delivering Granny’s special messages as she has requested. In the process Elsa learns all about her Granny, as well as the place she calls home, the neighbours who live around her, and above all a lot about herself.
It is a story of great imagination, although I am a little sceptical that a child such as Elsa really does exist. I feel mean, but I did get just the tiniest bit tired of the Land-of-Almost-Awake, the magic kingdoms, the symbolism – there is a lot of it, and the reader is constantly being brought back to it just in case we forget! A lot goes on in these imaginative phases, and I did get a bit lost with who was who, and who was doing what! But it doesn’t really affect the story in the real world. Like with many things with children, symbolism and imagination can help them deal with the real world much more effectively than counselling or adults trying to explain stuff.
I think this book is written for adults, and others may also find the magic thing a bit much. Nevertheless, it is the type of story which straddles both adult readers and young readers, and I think it would be absolute magic for a grandparent wanting to read or share a story with a youngster. I know I would have loved to have had this read to me by a grandparent!