Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Dominic Smith has the gift of transporting a reader to an unfamiliar world, but brings it to life with writing that is carefully chosen, beautiful and haunting.
In the Last Painting of Sara De Vos, it was the era of the great Dutch Masters. In his latest novel, Return to Valetto, it is the present day in the ruins of a medieval village, ravaged by war, earthquakes, and neglect, and the people who have lived there for generations.
Only ten inhabitants remain, amongst them three sisters and their mother – the Serafinos.
Hugh Fraser, nephew and grandson, returns there to spend summer with them. He is an historian and, although he lives in America, has fond memories of happy childhood summers spent in Valetto. Hugh is scarred by his American upbringing, with a father who suicided and a reclusive mother who locked herself away in darkened rooms.
This year, he comes to the villa to join the preparations for the hundredth birthday of Ida, his grandmother. The imagined Valetto is supposedly in sun-drenched Umbria – a contrast to the gothic atmosphere of his home surroundings. His aunts, Iris, Rose and Violet, are warm and affectionate, and with his grandmother together with Milo, their indispensable handyman, were more warmly significant in his childhood.
The charming rhythms of the villa’s daily life gather pace with the preparations for the birthday but are interrupted by historic revelations that affect them all. They are confronted by news that the family patriarch, Aldo Serafino, a resistance fighter during the war, in a grateful gesture, has bequeathed the adjoining cottage to Elisa and her mother who had harboured him during the war, whereas Hugh had inherited it from his dead mother.
Drama ensues from this complication. Lawyers are summoned from Milan. Solutions are proffered. At the same time, there is a mystery haunting the family. Hugh’s mother and Alessia, Elisa’s mother, had vanished for three days in the dark days of the war. No one knows what occurred during that interval.
The book throbs with passion and an increasing drive to discover the circumstances of the girls’ disappearance. The ultimate exposure of those details is truly shocking, unsuspected, and shattering to those affected. Hugh himself, who up to this point is a calm observer of Valetto lives, reaches an understanding of trauma and how it affects not just the sufferer, but ripples across the lives of others close to them.
Powerful reasons emerge to support the need to unearth buried secrets. Striving for a semblance of justice is equally overwhelming. He realises that relationships can be unbalanced by tunnel vision and ignorance; and this increased self-knowledge brings him a newly found lightness of being.
Dominic Smith’s lyrical writing is consistently breathtaking which is why this is a book to be read slowly and its nuances best appreciated by becoming immersed in its reading.
Valetto’s history becomes “like the filigree of a wrought-iron gate, our unaccountable lives twisting and swooping against a few vertical lines”. It is not linear.
His style is matter-of-fact, almost understated, never succumbing to extravagant excesses, although occasions arise that are unexpectedly dramatic. This creates enormous impact, particularly at the climax towards the very end.
A book such as this has a much wider relevance, too. It strongly shows that history can be ‘a forking path’, a ‘game of hypotheticals’….
Many people will love Dominic Smith’s latest novel. Amongst its many qualities, there is clever, wry humour, a subtly alluded to event of great significance and the Italian landscape in varying moods, radiant, beautiful, shrouded in history’s mysteries and stories.
It is guaranteed to give pleasure to anyone who appreciates a rich and unforgettable feat of imagination.
Return to Valetto
by Dominic Smith
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176106 727 3
$32.99 356 pages