‘The Seamstress of Sardinia’ by Bianca Pitzorno (Review)

Most of the books that end up in my letter box are those I’ve asked for, but I do get the odd surprise, and one of those arrived recently courtesy of Australian press, Text Publishing.  It’s one of those rare things, a local Australian-commissioned translation (with a Melbourne-based translator, too), and it marks the first major novel of its Italian writer in English.  With winter just around the corner, the skies are turning a little grey down under, so a trip to Sardinia to while away some time with a charming, and talented, guide is just what the doctor ordered.

Bianca Pitzorno is better known for her children’s books, but The Seamstress of Sardinia (translated by Brigid Maher) marks a move into adult fiction.  The novel is set in the early twentieth century and narrated by a nameless sartina, or seamstress, growing up in a poor part of town.  Early on, she describes how most of her family died in a cholera epidemic, and while her proud, independent grandmother raises her and teaches her the skills that will enable her to get by, it’s not long before she, too, passes away, leaving our young seamstress to fend for herself.

What could be a sob story is very much not the case as Pitzorno’s protagonist, a fictional character sourced from stories the writer heard about her grandmother’s youth, is made of sterner stuff than that.  In a time long before mass-produced fast fashion was around, a skilful seamstress was much in demand to help make new clothes and touch up older garments.  Thanks to her diligence and ability with the needle, it’s not long before the young woman makes a name for herself in town, regarded as just the person to call for last-minute repairs.

What we have, then, is a travelling craftswoman with access to many homes, and that provides the structure of The Seamstress of Sardinia.  The book is divided into six main sections, each focusing on a particular job and the rich people the protagonist encounters, and even if her employers aren’t short on money, that’s not to say that their lives are carefree.  There’s a lot to like about this approach, and it reminded me (surprisingly perhaps) of James Herriot’s books (with less hand-inside-cow action).  Like the Yorkshire vet, our narrator is an onlooker, privileged by her job to become involved in her employers’ issues, occasionally to her own detriment, but sometimes benefitting from her involvement in their problems.

A major theme of the book is the role of women, for this is a world where men rule the roost, and women must get by as best they can, regardless of their class.  One tale introduces us to a headstrong, educated woman, and shows how she reacts when she learns her loving husband isn’t quite the man she thought he was.  Even the privilege of foreign blood doesn’t exempt women from the norms of society completely, as the seamstress is to learn when an American she works for runs into problems:

If she had been poor, a sartina like me, a worker, a maid, they would have forgiven her for this, provided she knew her place and did not expect to treat them as an equal.  But La Miss considered herself their equal or perhaps, like a good American, she did not even realise that over here the distances between the various social classes and families were deep and insuperable.  And that women were not permitted to behave with the same freedom as men.
p.109 (Text Publishing, 2022)

Sadly, this is a mistake she will end up paying for dearly.

Yes, the men are always in control, especially when it comes to money, and one of the more fascinating stories here involves a woman who calls on the seamstress for help with a delicate situation.  You see, the man of the house refuses to spend money on clothes for his wife and daughters, and our young friend is needed to help them cut corners and save face.  Their desperate efforts to keep up appearances snowball into an amusing comedy of errors, where the conclusion only goes to show what hypocrites men can be…

The seamstress herself is quite aware of the dangers of men, warned both by her grandmother and her own experiences:

I knew to expect nothing good from them, nothing but deceit and shame.  I had read about it in novels and seen examples with my own eyes.  Solitude held no fear for me. (p.52)

However, despite her determination to keep to herself, a plot eventually emerges where a man from the upper classes starts to show interest in our heroine, gradually overcoming her frosty acknowledgement of his advances.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t taken with this aspect of the book.  Even if the affair did move fairly slowly, it still seemed rather artificial, and I enjoyed what was going on around the seamstress far more than her own romantic adventures.

What did impress me, though, was the picture Pitzorno paints of the gulf between luxury and poverty, often living side by side.  The seamstress may have rich friends, but she still lives in a fairly poor building, and some of her neighbours are almost destitute, meaning there’s often a need to lend a hand when things get tight.  There’s a huge difference between the classes when it comes to justice, too.  The protagonist was told by her grandmother of the dangers inherent in getting too close to the men of the great houses, and she finally gets first-hand experience of these dangers when her involvement with her suitor leads his family to turn their attentions, and weapons, on her.

It all makes for a pleasant way to while away a few hours, and Maher does an excellent job of bringing us the seamstress’ wry take on her little world.  In her thanks at the end of the novel, the writer teases that she had enough stories for another three books, and in a way, it’s a shame that she didn’t take that approach.  The Seamstress of Sardinia is at its best when our heroine is focusing on other people’s problems, and I suspect it would have been better to spread the sartina’s own issues out over a few volumes.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed Pitzorno’s journey through the world of her grandmother’s childhood, and I’m sure many other readers will be delighted to spend time roaming the streets of Sardinia in the company of a strong, independent young woman.

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