The Time In Between

Marcello Fois

MacLehose, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

“We all cherish our own particular ghosts and evoke them in different ways,” writes Sardinian novelist Marcello Fois. He is referring specifically about Mariella, the heartbroken daughter of blacksmith Michele Angelo Chironi, who has never recovered from the death of her child many years earlier, but the sentiment applies equally to Fois’s outlook on his homeland. Book by book, he is paying homage to Sardinia’s turbulent 20th century, refracting events through the experiences of the Chironi family, whose troubles undermine their wealth and status, making them perpetually mournful and sad.

The stories of orphaned Michele Angelo and Mercede, who marry and start a family in the early 1900s, were told in his earlier novel Bloodlines. Now, it is the turn of the younger generation. The year is 1943, and Sardinia is suffering not only the effects of war but devastating drought and malaria. Onto this uneasy stage steps Vincenzo, a poverty-stricken young stranger, fresh off the boat from Italy, where he was raised in an orphanage.

Family is the thread on which these novels are strung, but the persistent presence of orphans hints at the sorrow and loneliness that haunts the characters’ lives. This handsome newcomer makes his way to the blacksmith’s forge, having learnt that his father - a soldier, killed before he was born - was Michele Angelo’s son.

Recognising him immediately, his grandfather and aunt welcome him into their home, his arrival heralded as the start of better times. But as this kind-hearted young man finds work, helping eradicate malaria and bringing life back into the Chironi household, the seeds of future conflict are sown. He has fallen for Cecilia, a spirited young southerner, already engaged to another, and when they eventually wed, their problems feel as if they are pre-ordained.

Fois is fearless in showing emotion, and there are many unashamedly soul-searching passages. Some are more chewy than they need to be in Silvester Mazzarella’s occasionally clumsy translation, but these in no way impede the pleasures of a novel so immediate and intense.

Galloping at his tale, Fois charges over the years as if pursued by hounds. It can be disconcerting, years passing in a blink. Yet one forgives his headlong pace for the many joys he offers. Among these is his evocation of the island, his descriptions so vivid the sun-baked dust catches your throat. He can also make time stand still, as when Mariella visits the room in which her daughter died, where nothing has been disturbed. In this way, quietness and fury are powerfully combined.

As the saga unreels, there is no escape for Vincenzo and Cecilia from what lies ahead. Yet, although their personalities make their fate all but unavoidable, there is a consoling sense of historical perspective, of these players dancing like dragonflies, enjoying the summer light before their brief time is over and others take their place. In a country as steeped in history and tragedy as Sardinia, it is an understandable, if melancholy, perspective.