Translated by Silvester Mazzarella (from Italian)
2014, Maclehose Press
288 pages, family history, historical novel
After his wife dies, a blacksmith from a small village in Sardinia adopts an orphaned boy, Michele Angelo Chironi, and trains him to become a master blacksmith. When the boy has grown up, he falls in love with another orphan, Mercede Lai. They marry and begin to live in prosperity, with a bustling business, large forge, and their own vineyard.
The world gets in the way of their happiness, and the couple is plagued with misfortune when it comes to having children. Not only are there several miscarriages, but two of their sons are brutally murdered when they are only 10 years old. Of the three younger children, one enlists in the army during the first World War, one trains with his father to be a blacksmith, and the girl gets married to a person of rank.
Through the tale of this family in a remote region of Sardinia, the author demonstrates the far-reaching effects of modernity, development, and war.
Michele and Mercede's relationship was my favorite part of this novel. You don't often find couples who understand and support each other's emotions, both in literature and in real life. But Michele and Mercede are the exception to that general statement: from the very beginning, when they fall in love almost immediately, they are wonderfully supportive and good to each other. This does not mean that they don't have fights or hurt feelings; Mercede holds a grudge against Michele for years after the murder of their twins. But this couple chooses to work out these problems, and it is obvious that their love continues throughout their lives.
Another highlight of the book is the relationship between the three remaining children. Whereas Luigi is intelligent and studious, Gavino is the prototypical example of a skilled physical laborer - strong, hardworking, good with his hands, and interested in Marx and labor politics. Though seemingly opposites in personality, the two boys understand each other. They have such a close bond that Gavino finds their separation difficult when Luigi is sent off to school.
Their sister Marianna also has a good relationship with her brothers. She is the only one who Gavino trusts to tell certain secrets to (highlight for spoilers): especially that he likes men, and that is the reason he refuses to marry. After Luigi goes to war and Gavino demonstrates his unwillingness to marry, Marianna takes the responsibility of creating the family's next generation upon herself. She has an arranged marriage to the scion of a wealthy family (an arrangement that Gavino is absolutely opposed to), who becomes a powerful political figure after the first world war. When Gavino's political leanings get him into trouble, Marianna's connections also allow her to help him. Even when the siblings are not in agreement, they try to support each other in any way they can, both with and against their parents' wishes.
War and development
Wars always have widespread and long lasting effects, even outside of the regions that are directly impacted. Bloodlines gives an example of these effects in a very rural, remote part of Sardinia during the two world wars. At the beginning of the story, in the late 19th century, this area was no more than two small villages and some surrounding farms. With the coming of "progress," the area quickly expands, becoming the regional capital by the time of World War Two. This increased connection with far-away occurrences become all the more real to the Chironi family when the first World War breaks out and Luigi volunteers to fight. After he stops writing home, his family has no idea what became of him until another soldier returns to the village and confides in Gavino. Luigi had been shell-shocked and put in a mental treatment facility, finally killing himself when he couldn't bear it any longer. The terrible results of war are made clear: this family has lost yet another child.
Mercede and Michele are devastated by Luigi's death. They blame themselves for being unable to protect him. This goes so far that they even consider staging an "accident" in the forge to cripple Gavino, reasoning that the army wouldn't recruit him if he wasn't physically fit.
After the war the development of the area proceeded apace, resulting in increasing access to consumer products and news from the outside. This development is mirrored by the movement of Luigi, Gavino, and Marianna. Luigi leaves to go to the mainland and never comes back. Later, Gavino also leaves, finding a place for himself in England until the British deport him during the Second World War. And Marianna is the wife of an influential politician, making occasional formal visits to her hometown. Then, when politics destroy her family she returns to her parents' home. In comparison to her widely traveled children, Mercede has only seen the sea one time - when Luigi and Gavino took her there on a holiday. This, says this novel, is what happens when "modernity" and "development" come to a rural place.
This is a wonderful book. I am happy that it was chosen for the IFFP longlist this year, giving me the opportunity to read it. It is in my personal shortlist, and I hope that it moves on in the official one as well.
Read a sample of this novel on Amazon here or Google Books here. Available from Amazon and flipkart.