Sealskin by Su Bristow

A ‘selkie‘ is a mythological creature found in Scottish, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore. They are creatures that live in the sea as seals and can shed their skin on land to temporarily obtain the human form.

Su Bristow has taken one of the legends, which is better to discover after you’ve read the story, and woven a coming of age story around it, about a young man unsure of himself, who, through his encounter with a selkie, transforms into a more confident and emotionally intelligent version of himself.

Living on the Scottish coast, Donald is uncomfortable in his own skin and resistant to his mother’s suggestion, that he join his Uncle and the lads who’ve mocked him in the past on the fishing boat, the work his father had done before the sea claimed him. He prefers the solitary task of checking his crab pots, staying close to the shore, his brooding thoughts uninterrupted.

“Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there’d have been no time to look, to listen,  to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels.”

Donald and his mother’s live will change course quickly after that night, after he observes something mystical and makes a terrible error of judgement. He in turn, ignores, accepts and tries to atone for his mistake, his life becoming evermore entwined with the fates of his extended family and the people of his village, in doing so.

He becomes more observant and aware of human frailty and how his contribution might ease the path of difficulty and pleasure for those around him.

“It came to him that the way she watched was different from his own. He dealt with people warily, looking out for blows or pitfalls, always glad when the ordeal was over. Nor was she like the priest, watching in order to manage his flock rather than to be like them. She seemed to have no sense of separation, no self-consciousness, and yet she was set further apart then all of them.”

As soon as I heard about this book and its premise, I knew I wanted to read it, it has a little of the magic that made Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child such an enigmatic and yet compelling novel to read. It also reminded me of the equally wonderful novel The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris, based on the true story of Italian prisoner of war soldiers held on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking narrative that combines the harshness and wonder of a coastal landscape and lifestyle, with its moments of beauty and hardship, and how it is be different within a community of relatively like-minded souls, how to celebrate that difference and learn to accept it within ourselves. Perfect summer reading!

 

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Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri tr. Katherine Gregor

Eva Sleeps is a thought-provoking novel that takes the reader on multiple journeys, as the narrative slowly unravels the mystery that connects Eva, her mother Gerda and Vito.

“Where’s Eva anyway?”

“Eva is sleeping.”

The brown parcel travelled backward along the road it had taken to arrive at that spot: two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-four kilometres in total,there and back.

Eva Sleeps is a reference from Paradise Lost and a quote in the book that is repeated both in the prologue (above) and at the end of the novel, referring to the delivery of a package that arrives from the postal worker for Eva, one that her mother rejects, saying it is unwanted. It is an indirect introduction to the three main characters, introducing a connection that will be alluded through throughout and revealed  by the end after we too have travelled that same journey the package takes.

“Let Eve (for I have drench’d her eyes, Here sleep below, while thou to foresight wak’st.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI

We meet Eva as she is met at Munich airport by Carlo, he will drive her the three-hour journey across two borders to her home in Sudtirol/Alto Adige in a German-speaking part of northern Italy. It is the beginning of the Easter holiday and the beginning of a longer journey she will make when she receives the call from Vito telling her he doesn’t have long to live and that he’d like to see her again.

Eva’s chapters are titled Kilometre 0, Kilometres 0-35, up to Kilometre 1397 ending with Kilometre 0, Today. These chapters contain her thoughts and observations as she makes the 1400km journey towards the dying Vito in Sicily.

The interposing chapters are Gerda’s story and they are labelled by the years within which her story is narrated, beginning in 1919, a year in which:

“…the peace treaty was being signed in Saint-Germain, with which the victorious powers of the Great War – France, especially – wishing to punish the dying Austrian Empire, assigned South Tyrol to Italy. Italy was very surprised. There had always been talk of liberating Trento and Trieste, but never Bolzano – let alone Bozen. It was perfectly logical. South Tyrolean’s were German people, perfectly at ease in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t need anyone to liberate them. Even so, after a war that had certainly not been won on the battlefield, Italy ended up with that stretch of the Alps as their unexpected booty.”

It was also the year her father inherited the family home after the death of his parents. The fate of the family would forever be affected by that political decision, for all those native to the area, who overnight were ruled in a language and culture foreign to their ways, making them like strangers in their own country, as people from the poorer southern parts of Italy were sent to live among them, in an effort to try to make these tall, blond people more Italian.

Gerda’s family is poor and as soon as she is old enough she is sent out to work, she works in the kitchen of a large hotel and alongside her striking beauty, develops a talent for creating delectable local dishes, twin characteristics that will lift her out of poverty and give her a measure of independence, much required after her father disowned her upon the arrival of Eva. She finds a way to continue working without losing her daughter.

Alongside the enthralling life of Gerda, who is the most well-rounded and well-known of the characters we follow, we are exposed to the context of the freedom fights of Alto Adige, those who protested against the cultural white-washing, labelled terrorists for their protests when they turn violent.

“Until a few years ago, when you said you were a German speaker from Alto Adige, they thought you were a terrorist. At the very least they’d ask: but why do you people hate Italians so much?

Then things changed. In the weekly supplement of the newspaper, a few months ago, the front cover was devoted to separatist ethnic movements in Europe. It mentioned:

Corsica, Slovakia, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Po Valley.

The Po Valley!

No sign of Alto Adige.

Eva Sleeps is a provocative novel of journeys, of connections and contradictions across cultures, of love in its many forms, of struggles and conflicts, identity and how we are connected to place.

Told in a compelling narrative while backgrounding the fascinating and little known history of this part of northern Italy, it does what the historical novels often do best, increase our historical knowledge, while highlighting the ricochet effects political decisions can have on humanity, on innocent civilians, making us understand why the oppression that results turn some towards violence and others to seek love, as ways to dull the pain.

The novel is being made into a film.

Note: This book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Europa Editions.