A novel entitled That Summer in Puglia, with all its suggestiveness, might first appear too attention-seeking. Its opening pages suffice to show you it has much greater depth. This is a story of great quality, captivating you with the world it magnificently recreates. The title is a bridge between the seasons and places of a life: it connects the ‘summer’ of youth of the novel’s protagonist to the milder time of his adulthood; it permits the journey from a much loved, almost mythological place, the white city of Ostuni in the South of Italy, to metropolitan London, skimming the high points of European culture along the way.
As you migh expect from literary convention, for the protagonist Tommaso this movement and progression are both physical and existential. Yet as the plot develops, digging up happy and tragic events, it is clear that what really happened one summer thirty years ago remains almost unfathomable to Tommaso. The novelist Valeria Vescina – Italian but writing her first novel in the language of her adopted homeland England – has managed to combine a compelling narrative with the delicate touch of epiphany. Tommaso’s resentment, intransigence and self-deception are fully dispelled only at the end.
The story opens in South Kensington when the adult Tommaso’s patched-up life is suddenly breached. His astonishment at having been tracked down by a private investigator, and hearing the sound of his real name, Tommaso Spagnuolo, after so many years of social invisibility, urges him to speak. A linear account of his past life in Puglia follows, interspersed with remarks on the restraints of his current life in London. Few objects survive from his Italian childhood as records of his affections. In their scarcity, those that remain are cherished as sacred vestiges. Some coins, cast in plaster, still echo with his father’s last words. There is an ancient lamp too – perhaps a premonition that harmony and light will be retrieved even in the darkest of hours.
While the conversation between Tommaso and the private investigator, Will, gradually develops into a relationship of mutual understanding, the reader comes to respect Tommaso’s integrity. He recalls the beautiful scenery of his Mediterranean upbringing. We visit the Spagnuolo’s household through his eyes and see, from this privileged viewpoint, the coils of Ostuni’s ancient walls descending from their house on the hill down to the sea. We discover that Tommaso’s fascination for antiquity – shared with his father – was born of his town’s location as a cultural crossroads and archaeological treasure trove. We are told of his growing conflict with his mother, who is preoccupied with running the family business and maintaining their high social status after his father’s death. Through this we learn of his acute loneliness, a loneliness that the stunningly beautiful and sensitive Anna will cure with her tender love.
Even in its most revealing passages, Valeria Vescina is adept at preserving the secrecy of her protagonist’s thoughts. The novel’s confessional tone is cleverly filtered through the narrative technique of dramatic monologue: Tommaso speaks to his faithful and silent interlocutor. In this way, intense emotions are allowed to mingle with lighter conversational moments. And vivid descriptions of Italian food or folkloristic scenes link the novel to a prestigious lineage of cooking literati – I am thinking of the importance of food for women writers of the calibre of Dacia Maraini and Simonetta Agnello Hornby.
This brilliant novel confirms with delicacy and intelligence the redemptive power of words and claims forgiveness as the truest form of love.
Reviewed by Teresa Franco
THAT SUMMER IN PUGLIA
Written by Valeria Vescina
Published by Eyewear Publishing (2018)
Teresa Franco is an Oxford academic and arts journalist for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. She is an expert on modern Italian literature and has a strong interest in translation. She is the author of many essays on the Italian contemporary poet Giovanni Giudici. Teresa is on Twitter @teref18