Fiction – Kindle edition; Signature Editions, 256 pages; 2010.
Genni Gunn’s Solitaria opens in dramatic style: workers restoring a dilapidated Italian villa discover a body on the site. It turns out to be a male murder victim and his name is Vito Santoro. He has been dead for some 50 years.
But this is not a crime novel — it’s a family history. And the decaying villa is a metaphor for the Santoro family:
And family, too, can become the rubble around you, the millstones and boulders, the pebbles and stones – a virtual quarry impeding your every step.
Thanks to the help of the television show Chi l’Ha Visto?, which reports on unsolved crimes, the victim’s family — an assorted collection of brothers and sisters who live in Italy, Australia and Canada — is tracked down. Each of them thought Vito, the eldest sibling, had emigrated to Argentina — and Piera, the eldest sister, has correspondence from him to prove it.
But Vito is a dangerous character, the one whom everyone has a tale to tell, and even in death he looms large over the family.
As often happens in families, once a child’s character is set, he is forever viewed through that filter. So Vito became our black sheep, the scapegoat loaded down with our frustrations and our fears. After always hearing himself accused, Vito began to do the things of which he was accused. He was the one who would skip classes, climb into the windows of an abandoned house, who would settle schoolyard arguments with his fists and win, the one who stole almonds and figs and walnuts from the fields and was viciously beaten for it by Papà, even though all us children had eaten the stolen fruits. He became dangerous and we both loved and shunned him.
The story is split into two narratives, which are interleaved. The first is told in the third person and focuses mainly on Vito’s nephew, David, a professor and translator, who lives in Canada. David travels to Italy with his mother Clarissa, a world famous soprano, to attend the funeral — but he’s been invited along mainly to try and coax Vito’s sister Piera — with whom he has a close relationship — out of the room in which she has locked herself away.
The second is told in the first person from Piera’s perspective. (The title of the novel actually refers to Piera, who has become reclusive — what the Italians call solitaria.) She is the closest in age to Vito and out of all the siblings she knows him best. But did she know he had been murdered?
She tells her side of the story — what it was like growing up in Fascist Italy, how Vito was always clashing with their father, the ways in which she had to grow up faster than her younger siblings to help her poorly mother raise them — in a series of confidential conversations with David. These were, by far, my favourite aspects of the novel, probably because of their immediacy and Piera’s engaging voice.
But, of course, we cannot tell how much of what Piera shares is true or exagerrated. Certainly her experiences and deeply held beliefs — that she sacrificed her own happiness for the security of her siblings, is a case in point — are in stark contrast to the ways in which the rest of the family see her. It’s fair to say that her immediate family, but especially her daughter-in-law Teresa (Vito’s wife), who lives in the apartment below hers, rather detests her and thinks she is prone to melodrama.
In many ways, that charge could also be laid at the second half of this novel, which strays occasionally into soap opera/kitchen sink drama territory. The too-neat denouement is particularly dramatic — and predictable.
But the strength of the novel lies mainly in its examination of a complicated family history and how it is never quite possible to shake off those ties that forever bind us to our siblings and our parents.
I also quite liked the recurrent theme of what it is to leave your homeland — in this case Italy — for foreign shores even though the old country still beckons. David was raised in Canada by an Italian mother, took Italian lessons as a child and visited Italy often, but he feels Canadian (he occasionally has to correct relations who call him “American”). His mother, by contrast, feels that…
…Italy is home, though she hasn’t touched ground in this place herself for years. In Canada, her version of Italy is one of colours and shapes, one that lacks the stories of human interaction, the past being something she does not discuss.
Compare this to David’s outlook. When he stumbles upon some Roman ruins, he cannot believe something so old can be left in its natural habitat.
“It seems so…deserted,” David says, thinking that in Canada, a small piece of a Roman bridge would be preserved in a museum, garner oohs and aaaahs and admission fees for viewing. Here, the past exists with the present. No glass between them.
On the whole, Solitaria is an engaging tale about thwarted desires, of what happens when you live your live according to the way others want you to, rather than following your own path. It has has been longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.