by Genni Gunn (2010)
Signature Editions (2010)
250 pp

There weren’t many Giller Prize longlisted titles available in the United States when the list was announced, but one you can get for the Kindle is Genni Gunn’s trip into a family’s history, Solitaria. Gunn has written two other novels and two collections of short stories (and some poetry, and even an opera). She was born in Trieste, Italy (and has also translated a couple of books of Italian poetry), and in Solitaria she takes a Canadian with Italian heritage back to Italy to learn about his past.

The book is set in the midsummer of 2002. As it opens, we wander through a dilapidated Italian villa that is finally being restored:

Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.

Besides representing the gradual disintegration and dispersal of the Santoro family and the gradual collapse of memory and the past, something grand becoming dust, the disintegrating villa also brings us to the story’s shocking catalyst. During the restoration, workers discover the body of a man who, it is determined, was murdered in the 1950s. A television crew for the television show Chi l’Ha Visto?, which reports on unsolved crimes or disappearances (“Our answering machine receives approximately 40,000 responses a year”), arrives to film their report. When the clip airs, Piera Valente and Teresa Santoro, two older women with a terrible relationship, are stupefied when they realize that the body is that of Vito Santoro, Piera’s oldest brother and Teresa’s husband, the father of her son Marco. For nearly fifty years, the whole Santoro family, Teresa included, believed that Vito had emigrated to Argentina. They all believed it because through all the years Piera said she was receiving letters from him.

Vito and Piera are two of seven Santoro children born in the early twentieth century to a poor man and woman who were against fascism when it was unpopular to be so. Over the years, the family has dispersed across the globe, and the mother and father have — obviously — died. When the other siblings hear the news, they come back to Belisolano, Italy, where Piera and Teresa live, to attend the funeral and get some answers.

From this, we go to Canada where David hears the news from his mother, Clarissa, one of the Santoro siblings, a world-class soprano. Piera, it turns out, has locked herself in her room, refusing to let anyone enter and refusing to answer any of their questions. The only person she wants to talk to is David, the nephew she has always favored. Like many members of the once-close family, David is a bit of a rootless recluse. He is involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman he has only been with, face-to-face, a few times, and that suits him okay. In fact, though he doesn’t necessarily want to go to Italy, it is an opportunity to avoid a long vacation with his girlfriend, a vacation that would more than double the amount of time they’ve actually spent together. So, off to Italy he goes.

When David arrives, we meet several other members of the family, though Piera has remained locked in her room. Gunn does a great job introducing these elderly siblings and their children. In fact, when the novel takes us into narratives of the past, when I met these same characters as children I felt a bit of glee in meeting them at that stage of their lives, so nicely drawn are they at the beginning of the book, though they are introduced only briefly. Not long after the introductions, David makes his way to Piera, who feels attacked and misunderstood (as she has felt for most of the past half-century), and she begins telling him the story of her youth, and we settling into “the oppressive heat of memory.”

Much of the book is her stories about the past, going back to the 1920s and 30s, when her father was fed up with fascism and the family was young, up to the mid-1950s, when the family broke apart for various reasons. Rather than focus on this time period in Italy’s history, though, making the book a vehicle to explore territory that is perhaps familiar, Gunn keeps the focus on the family. This, for me, was a good thing, and rather than become a poorly disguised, politically correct reexamination of the past, the family’s personal trials remain front and center. Though history can destroy, this book very much focuses on this statement from Piera:

And family, too, can become the rubble around you, the millstones and boulders, the pebbles and stones — a virtual quarry impeding your every step.

We learn that Vito, the eldest child, was always the black-sheep of the family. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that he was often sent away to care or be cared for by others as family circumstances determined, but whatever the case Vito never fully settles into his family. For the children, Vito often feels like a visitor rather than a brother. This causes problems for Piera, in particular:

Sometimes, I daydreamed that he was not my brother at all, but a stray boy my parents had taken in and sent away and welcomed back, a boy I could fall in love with without the shame, a boy who would usher me into the pages of a romantic novel, with whom I would live happily ever after.

For his part, Vito’s love for Piera tended less to the brotherly and more to the romantic, and he frequently makes little advances to let her know this. At least, that’s Piera’s version of the past. When David goes downstairs to report, the other siblings don’t believe it happened quite that way: “Anyway, as always, Piera is making this her story instead of Vito’s,” Clarissa says. “Self-centered as ever.”

“Appropriately vague,” says someone at the house. “Ah. The nature of truth.” Sadly, Solitaria is not vague at all. As much as I enjoyed the setup and the character, the novel deflates considerably when it becomes obvious it is becoming less and less a character study and more a family melodrama, complete with much wailing. Even the characters start flattening as we move quickly to the big reveal, which is quite predictable at about the three-quarter mark.

I still rate the book highly because its first half is nicely done: the narrative is well balanced and both the characters and the setting are nicely textured. It doesn’t make good on the promise it makes at the beginning, but I found it enjoyable, well done on the whole, and, as I’ve often found with the books on the Giller lists, interesting and compelling despite its flaws.

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