One woman’s life serves as an exemplar of the harsh realities experienced by an Italian generation marked by war in this panoramic, yet site-specific, novel.
Maria Vittoria is a bride of advanced age—25—as Valmorbida (The Winding Stick, 2009, etc.) begins her story. In 1923, her father produces a groom for her, Achille, a World War I veteran, and the story of Maria’s life begins to unfold, along with the story of a family and a country devastated by competing loyalties and warring factions. Maria and Achille settle in the plains, in the village of Fosso, but the wisdom imparted to her by the emblematic Madonna of the Mountains, a statue of the Virgin Mary which Maria carries with her throughout her life, harkens back to the rough-hewn lessons and truths of her early life in the mountains of the north. As Maria and Achille nurture both their growing family and a thriving grocery business, the rising power of fascism and the cruel privations of World War II threaten to destroy all the couple has so doggedly worked to create. Valmorbida’s narrative raises issues of misogyny, family loyalty, and moral ambiguity during wartime in an organic way while maintaining the tension and characterization needed to advance a family saga. As the tale approaches a postwar finale, Maria must make peace with past decisions and, once again, depends on her companion since youth, the eponymous Madonna, for guidance.
Valmorbida belongs to a family that emigrated from Italy to Australia after World War II, and the wartime horrors endured by her characters may invite speculation about the autobiographical nature of this work—but the moral and ethical questions raised propel the story beyond the particulars into the universal.