The Irish author Christine Dwyer Hickey achieved a considerable breakthrough with her most recent book, Tatty, a finely crafted story that seemed part novel and part memoir and was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Along with Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People it inaugurated a radically new way of writing about Irish childhoods. In Last Train From Liguria she broadens her ground. This is a big, bold, remarkably assured narrative that roams between 1930s London and Celtic Tiger-era Dublin, cleverly shifting its balance of perspectives and characterisations so that both of those places lead inevitably to the fascist-era Italy that is really the novel’s main setting.
In 1933, Bella Stuart, the introspective daughter of a London surgeon, sets out for the country where Mr Mussolini is busily making the trains run on time. The plan is for her to be tutor to the son of the aristocratic Lami family – ‘there’s a villa in Sicily and a summer house on the Italian riviera’ and there is ‘some German connection, so you’ll probably be popping off to Berlin.’ Fateful words for the whole of Europe, perhaps.
Signora Lami turns out to be younger than Bella, her husband much older, a man who has ‘a face that is ready to die’. There is a scene of Tolstoyan poignancy and unearthly beauty where Bella glimpses them bathing. This is a household as strange as it is crustily sumptuous. Its mistress refers to the servants as ‘frightful primitives.’ Even the sound made by the crickets seems different, somehow; ‘harsher and slightly neurotic.’
Literary images of Italy are so much a part of western aesthetic inheritance, and have been, since at least the era of the European Grand Tour, that they have become almost bombproof by now. Storytellers engaging with that extraordinary complicated country’s realities have occasionally seemed to be writing about a stage set. (‘All that art and sunshine,’ Bella’s father remarks, as wowed as a prototype Merchant-Ivory executive). Yet anyone who knows the real place has often been struck by the extent to which Italy is itself a work of fiction, an anthology of widely disparate and often avowedly inimical cultures yoked together by 19th Century nationalism. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s prose, in its suppleness and mordant grace, incarnates an Italy that is beautiful but not so photogenic, and not to be found in Baedeker. ‘Scrub and the smell of almonds…a palsy of silvery leaves…Cobbled rootops, brittle and cracked by the sun.’
As the ugly wrigglings of fascism become ever more pernicious, there is a sense of a world that is inexorably corrupting but still holding its shape, like a prawn slowly rotting in aspic. Images of aging and amnesia abound. Sickness is a kind of inheritance. She builds the book slowly, stirring layers of the past into the mix, so that a killing that happened in Dublin at the outset of the narrative becomes an essential element of the plot. Perhaps a little implausibly, the killer has fled to southern Italy – but you are willing to meet Christine Dwyer Hickey halfway when required, for the spellbinding acuity of her language. When she writes about the Mediterranean light and the food and the worldview, about the people’s ‘constant ability to be enchanted, unlike the English who so often need to be persuaded’, you feel you are crossing a square in Palermo, in the company of someone who knows its every secret. Everyone ‘has something to sell – lavender punnet, rosary beads, bags of cherries.’ But you sense that what has been sold to Bella will cost dearly.
When the husband of the enigmatic Signora Lami dies, their son, Allesandro, is sent with troubled Bella to the wonderfully conveyed town of Bordighera. Here they fall in with a strange music teacher, Maestro Edward, and the remarkably observed shifts in this triangle of loss and yearning are never once over-written. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s gift for lyricism is scrupulously deployed. (A hangover makes one character’s ‘earlobes feel hot’). But she is careful never to sink her people by describing them too richly. It is her great skill to stand out of their way.
This would be a solid piece of work if it had settled for the relative safety of the historical novel, with all of that genre’s disingenuous insistence that the past is distant enough to be looked at from some plateau of moral superiority, arrived at only recently. And the book’s Cinerama capaciousness and striking confidence would have made it an impressively page-turning read. What makes it darker and stranger is its framing character, Anna, a woman of Italian descent living in Dublin in 1995, where ‘the lazy brass music of Coronation Street from the telly’ is about as Joycean as things ever get. With great subtlety and skill, connections are uncovered, so that present and past become metaphors of one another, and the life of Bordighera echoes uneasily across the decades with the now imploded grandiosities of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Tactically, this is a master stroke by Christine Dwyer Hickey, for it bursts the book out of the museum of exhausting accuracies that is always lying in wait for the historical novelist. What emerges is a powerfully accomplished work of art. In the end, this isn’t a novel about politics or history at all. It’s a wrenchingly affecting love story of compromised identities and regrets, of adult realisations and broken hopes, as hesitatingly wise as it is moving and persuasive.