Today’s leg of the IFFP journey takes us south to Sardinia, and I can sense most of you are already looking forward to sun, local wine and simple, home-cooked food. However, it’s not all la dolce vita in today’s book. As it turns out, life on the island can be rather difficult at times – and yes, there will be blood…
Bloodlines by Marcello Fois – MacLehose Press (translated by Silvester Mazzarella, review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In the late-nineteenth century, a young woman praying in a church looks up and sees a handsome young man above her, working on repairs. From this first, coincidental meeting, springs a relationship that is to last – the apprentice blacksmith, Michele Angelo Chironi, and the young seamstress, Mercede Lai, are a couple made for each other.
However, while their love is solid, their luck is a little less consistent. Success in business is met with grudging admiration in the small town of Nuoro, and the Chironis must be careful not to aggravate the latent jealousy of their neighbours. It’s the children who really suffer, though, as in the decades to come, violence, discrimination and war threaten their existence. It’s only natural that the Chironis come to believe that their fate is linked to their bad blood…
Bloodlines is the third of the IFFP books sent to me by the kind people at MacLehose/Quercus, and after being less than kind to the other two, it comes as a bit of a relief to be able to say that I enjoyed this one a lot. The story meanders slowly through the history of a family that despite its relative successes is cut down by tragedy at regular intervals, a tale that ebbs and flows with time and tide, all the while sketching a picture of a town changing and developing as the twentieth century progresses.
The novel focuses on the parents, Michele Angelo and Mercedes, two souls of dubious provenance, both illegitimate children presumably destined for poverty. Having been plucked from an orphanage shortly before he was due to be cast onto the streets, the blacksmith’s apprentice feels himself lucky, especially after his chance encounter with his future wife. Later, his fortunes will rise, yet his background will always haunt him:
“Even now, in front of this land that is his own, in front of his children who already exist and those yet to come, in front of the only woman he will ever love; even now, he is conscious of that moaning, and the night and the cold. It is like a reminder, a sign. That we all see ourselves as predators, but that we are really prey. That we all see ourselves as masters, but are instead servants in perpetuity. Naturally, it takes generations to get used to affluence, all the more so when it has been achieved by the sweat of the brow.”
p.41 (MacLehose Press, 2014)
With a bit of luck, this feeling will pass, he thinks – hopefully, the family’s fortunes will continue to prosper.
However, it appears that the dubious bloodline is cursed. Children die at young ages, and even those that survive are fated to struggle with life. Luigi, the educated, intelligent son, has many advantages, but as war advances upon Europe, he finds himself at odds with what’s required of a man of this era. His younger brother, Gavino, an artisan in the mould of his father, stands more of a chance of succeeding in his traditional hometown, were it not for a secret he is forced to keep. Marianna, the baby of the family, will be able to trade her looks for fortune, but that may involve moving away from those who love her…
For all of the children, life is affected by external affairs, with war and politics permeating even their sleepy home on a distant island. The First World War is initially mentioned in passing, not something which concerns the island folk – until, that is, soldiers begin to return, and the truth about the conflict becomes known:
“No-one survived at Monte San Michele; sixty thousand lads wheezing to death in the trenches, blinded, scalded, distorted by blisters. Until eventually the Austrian high command ordered the lines cleared by a platoon armed with clubs bristling with nails. Did you get that? No point in wasting bullets on those who would die anyway. They’ve written about that somewhere, Gaví?” (p.139)
The men come home, crippled and disfigured, and the people of Nuoro realise that their home is not as far from the wider world as they’d thought.
In fact, another focus of Bloodlines is the setting, with the novel describing the town’s progression from a meeting place for shepherds and farmers to a major population centre. This modernisation and civilisation doesn’t always run smoothly, though. The traditional dangers of bandits and vendettas are merely masked, not removed, meaning that journeys are always fraught with danger. In addition, as contact with the mainland increases, politics becomes more important, and as we move into the 1930s, this means that certain tendencies become unwanted – and dangerous…
Bloodlines is an excellent story of a family struggling against fate, well written with a variety of voices and approaches, a credit to both Fois and Mazzarella. Some readers may find it a little slow in places, but I enjoyed the tangents, the lulls and Luigi’s (invented) story of the family history, a tale that again sheds just as much light on the town as on the Chironis. The novel can be bleak, but there’s always warmth to protect against the cold, and maybe, just maybe, a glimmer of hope too 🙂
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
This was very close for me, one of several books in contention for the final spots. It’s certainly one I would have been happy to see shortlisted, and a book I’m more likely to reread at some point than many of the others – which can’t be a bad thing 🙂
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I suspect that this would have been one under consideration… Perhaps the judges found it a little slow, or a little light on content, or they may have been tossing up between this one and While the Gods Were Sleeping, giving the nod to Erwin Mortier’s Flemish look at WWI. It’s not much consolation, but it did make our Shadow shortlist, at least 😉
Enough southern sun – it’s time for our final visit to Germany this year. We’re heading back to Berlin for a summer of fun in the sun, parties and midnight excursions, so grab yourself a carton of Müller milk – we’ll get something stronger to add to it on the way…