Saturday, September 12, 2009
Last Train From Liguria
LAST TRAIN FROM LIGURIA
Christine Dwyer Hickey
I’ve been waiting all summer to read this because I didn’t want to have to hide in the outside toilet with the door bolted; it’s the only place I can get any peace when the kids are off school. Now, hurrah, the holidays are over, and I was able to lie at my length on the sofa, with a pot of tea and a packet of biscuits, and gobble up Last Train from Liguria.
In the gripping opening scene, Edward, a violent drunk, wakes up from a stupor to find his sister lying dead in a pool of blood. “The sight of her blood. That so much could be contained in one body. Even a body as big as Louise’s.”
Without doubt, Edward has killed her yet he feels no remorse. His only thought is for himself - how can he save his neck? So he runs for his life to Italy, where he finds work as a music teacher to Alec Lami – the nervy, shy little son of a wealthy Italian aristocrat and his beautiful Jewish wife. Edward can safely hide behind the high walls of Villa Lami. If he stays sober and diligent and keeps out of trouble he knows he’ll never be caught. It’s not much of a life, but it’s better than being dead.
Meanwhile, reserved, repressed spinster Bella lives with her widowed father in London. Bella’s father is ready to remarry; he wants Bella out of the house. Without her consent he finds her a job in Italy, as governess to Alec Lami. When she protests he tells her: “Oh Bella, I’m so seldom home, you know – between the hospital and my other commitments – well, let’s be honest my dear. It’s you. You who are always alone.”
Villa Lami is in Liguria, on the Italian Riviera - lucky Bella has landed on her feet! She soon settles into the household, and makes friends with Alec and Edward. And even better, Alec’s control freak mother is never around; in true aristocratic style she provides for her son financially, but virtually ignores him. So for six years Bella and Edward act as his surrogate parents without ever becoming romantically involved with each other. (I was a bit sceptical about that to be honest – a lonely young couple cooped up in a house for six years together and no sex?)
These are turbulent times. Mussolini is in charge of Italy and gradually, like an insidious rot, he introduces anti-Jewish laws. Before long the domestics are afraid to work in Villa Lami; a polite letter states that Alec is no longer welcome to study at his posh, private school. As Europe creeps closer and closer to war, Alec’s (Jewish) mother disappears; suddenly it becomes terribly important to get Alec and his new baby sister smuggled out of Italy.
Except that Edward can’t leave Italy for risk of being caught and hanged for murder...
The strength of this marvellous novel is that Christine Dwyer Hickey does not allow us to get bogged down in shock factor details about the awful treatment of Jewish people in Europe in the 1930s. Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Germany simmer menacingly in the background but this is a story about ordinary people – good, bad, ugly, warts and all – forced to make courageous decisions. I was so proud of Edward when he got on that last train out of Liguria, to help Bella escape with the children.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is from Dublin. Her last novel Tatty was heaped with critical acclaim and shortlisted for loads of literary awards. I liked Tatty well enough, but I think Last Train from Liguria is a far more enjoyable read. It brims with colour and texture; it bounces along at a furious pace, and the writing is only gorgeous.
VERDICT: A bold and brilliant novel – compassionate but never sentimental.