Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Dominic Smith’s latest novel, Return to Valetto, is a deliciously entertaining read set in a near-abandoned Italian village rife with human dramas — both past and present.
The gorgeous prose, intriguing plot, captivating setting and brilliant cast of characters make this a truly immersive novel about history’s long tentacles, family secrets and the path to rough justice.
Smith, who brought us the bestselling Last Painting of Sara de Vos and, more recently The Electric Hotel, has a penchant for framing his stories around historical events, people and places. This novel is no different.
His Italian village setting — Valetto, which is perched on an isolated rocky outcrop in Umbria — is inspired by the real town of Civita Di Bagnoregio which can only be reached by a fortified footbridge and is known as “the dying city”.
Italy’s fascist past and the role of its resistance fighters in the Second World War are also fleshed out in this intricately plotted story.
Village on the hill
Just 10 people remain resident in Valetto, which is slowly falling apart — thanks to landslides, earthquakes and the ravages of time — and there’s little reason for people to stay.
Yet one person wants to move into the village – not escape it. Her name is Elisa Tomassi and she’s a mild-mannered chef from Milan. She claims that she’s inherited a cottage attached to a large villa, but the Anglo-Italian family who own it — a trio of eccentric widows, Iris, Rose and Violet, and their elderly mother Ida — claim otherwise.
They say she’s an interloper and that her claim — that their late patriarch, Aldo Serafino, promised the cottage to her family in exchange for sheltering him during the war (when he was a resistance fighter) — is unfounded.
Things come to a head when their nephew, Hugh Fisher, an American-based academic historian, arrives at Valetto for the summer. Recently bereaved and with an adult daughter studying in Oxford, he had hoped to use the cottage — left to him by his late mother — to write a paper about the social history of abandoned Italian towns (his speciality) for an upcoming conference.
But with Elise marking her territory, whether rightly or wrongly, he moves into his Aunt Iris’s guest room instead.
The narrative, predictably, pits Elise against the family; less predictably it looks at what happens when the family try to debunk Elise’s claim, a process that turns a petty dispute over property and the wishes of the dead into something with much deeper, and more disturbing, roots.
Return to Valetto asks some in-depth questions about history, including who gets to write it and how we interpret it.
We want history to be a unified narrative, a casual, linear plot that cantilevers across the centuries, but I’ve always pictured it like a filigree of a wrought-iron gate, our unaccountable lives twisting and swooping against a few vertical lines.
And it also posits some pertinent questions about reparations and redemption, including how we bring to justice those that committed unspeakable acts during the war but have never been arrested or forced to confront a court of law.
The story deals with heavy themes, but Smith’s writing isn’t maudlin; instead, it’s light on its feet, frothy and graceful.
There’s humour, too, not least in the vibrant cast of characters, each of whom has their own quirks and eccentricities (Aunt Iris, for instance, dedicates her spare time investigating unsolved crimes from her bedroom), and his grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration, which forms the climax at the end of the novel, is outrageous fun.
And if that’s not enough, there’s also a romance, a road trip and a very public reckoning to contend with. It’s not perfect (some aspects, such as Hugh’s inability to recognise a woman’s romantic interest in him, feel a bit cliched), but on the whole Return to Valetto is a beguiling and thoroughly enjoyable read.
For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Theresa’s at Theresa Smith Writes.