Piera Valente has lived life as a self-proclaimed — perhaps even selfish — martyr. One of six children in the Santoro family, led by a lowly railroad worker/tobacco farmer who struggled to support his family, as a teenager she entered a marriage of convenience with an Italian magistrate which brought with it enough wealth to ensure her siblings had a chance — indeed, a half century later, one is a successful lawyer and another an opera soprano based in Canada, but with a global reputation. Piera has never travelled (her role was to support, whatever sacrifice that involved) and still lives on the Adriatic coast where she was raised. For decades, “she and Teresa [her sister-in-law] have been shackled to each other — giver and taker — in a complicated dance of insults and insinuations, ever since Piera’s brother Vito abandoned Teresa.” A year ago, the relationship of “giver and taker” turned upside down when Piera fractured her ankle. Piera enjoyed the attention that recovery brought with it and “has become reclusive, solitaria, and has left the apartment only once or twice since then, yet has convinced herself that she knows all that occurs outside.” Author Genni Gunn establishes those powerful dramatic forces very early in her novel. More important, however, is the way that she qualifies the reliability of the voice of Piera which will become the dominant source of historical narration in the rest of the book. She does it by referencing the Bocca Della Verita — The Mouth of Truth that hangs in the Church of Santa Maria in Rome: “According to legend and tradition, the mouth was used as a lie detector, and its mythical teeth would snap shut on the fingers of any liar” who submitted his or her hand. Her father had whittled a large, grotesque copy of the mask and Piera has retained it to this day:
Throughout her childhood, the crude wooden Bocca mask hung on a thick nail at the side of the doors of all the railway huts they occupied. Her father used it, in jest, whenever he thought she might have been tempted to lie, unaware that she truly believed in the powers of the mask.
When her parents moved into town, Papa gave her the mask, and she hung it at the side of her bedroom door, like a ghost or a conscience, the crude carved face superimposed over Papa’s face in memory, so that his empty eyes watched her, his lips were ready to crush her bones. When people asked her about it, she said it was a reminder of Papa’s many sacrifices. But the mask hung in her house as a testament to her ability to outwit it. She crossed herself when she passed it. She took it down, finally, after her housekeeper died, when she decided to renovate the old house.
So we have a narrator with a martyr complex who also delights in outwitting “the mouth of truth”. What is required to complete the set-up for the novel is an incident that puts both these elements into play on the stage of history. It comes in the form of a television show — Chi l’ha Visto — which reports that a team demolishing a villa in a nearby community has found the body of man who died of gunshot wounds to the head almost 50 years earlier. From the picture posted on the screen, Teresa recognizes her husband, Vito, who abandoned her in 1955 and it is now 2002. But how could that be? Vito has been in Argentina all that time — Piera has been getting letters from him.
Gunn manages to communicate all of the above by page 15 of a 250-page book — the remainder consists of filling in the details of the backstory and there is no way that I am going to spoil the reading of the book by giving too much of that away. I can however safely explore some of “how” the author goes about filling in those details because, for this reader, that was the real accomplishment of this book.
Piera’s four surviving siblings all make the journey to Belisolano to stand together (sort of) as a family while this drama unfolds. We know early on that that is not going to be an easy task when Clarissa, the opera diva, informs her son David that he will have to take a leave from his teaching job and come with her:
Slowly, he gets the details. His aunt, Piera, the only one who claims to have received regular letters from her brother Vito, has locked herself in her bedroom, and refuses to speak to anyone, including her sister-in-law Teresa, who lives one storey below her.
“She says she’ll talk to you and only you,” Clarissa says, a tightness in her tone.
When his mother speaks of her sister Piera, it’s always with slightly pursed lips, with a permanent tone of disapproval. It’s more than bias, David thinks, it’s something historical. “But that’s ridiculous,” he says. “Why would she choose me, when she hasn’t seen me in years? What do I know about her life?”
“I think that’s the point,” Clarissa says. “She says we’re all biased against her. She adores you and thinks you’ll be impartial.”
I’ll admit that it was that exchange that got me involved with the novel. The only person who knows the truth has a chip on her shoulder that is so large that the only person she will talk to is a nephew who used to spend summers with her but whom she has not seen in decades. The family may be facing a new version of “crisis” but all the old wounds of history will remain in place and need to be explored, despite the new circumstances.
Gunn develops the picture of how those wounds came to be through a parallel narrative. Piera not only has known this moment will arrive she has been preparing for it with both some written memories and her own version of an oral history — in one stream, we share with David his aunt’s recounting of the family history leading up to Vito’s disappearance in 1955.
In the other stream, David reports back to his aunts, uncles and cousins in the now of 2002. We know that Piera is not only unreliable, with a deeply-ingrained victim complex, we know also that she delights in out-witting the Mouth of Truth. Her brothers and sisters have their own versions of the stories she tells David — but then how much is their own self-interest altering their recollections of the truth?
Solitaria is not without its problems. The cast of characters is large for a short book and the fact that the story spans more than half a century (with a multi-decade gap in the middle) means that many people and elements don’t get as fully developed as one might wish. That means when it comes time to finally solve the riddle the characterization and empathy that are needed to offset the “plot” just aren’t strong enough to carry the weight needed to support its final reveal.
I’m not disappointed that the Real Giller jury included this novel on its longlist — I would not have read it otherwise and I did find it worthwhile. On the other hand, they were right to leave it off the shortlist. As interesting as the Santoro family history is, the 2011 Giller has better books on offer.