If the gods couldn’t get enough of Sicily, figures novelist Prose (Blue Angel, 2000, etc.), the island must have plenty going for it—and she’s right.
This latest in National Geographic’s sophisticated, fleet, intelligent series of travel writing finds Prose seeking “that Sicilian gift for extracting beauty from the harshest and most painful truths, for compelling death to admit its debt and allegiance to life, for creating an enduring—a vital and living—masterpiece.” She does a good job of it all. She writes with a cautious lyricism about a land where natural and manmade splendors coexist with sustained and terrible bloodshed (also caused both by nature and by man), calling up a colorful, brutal history seen in a remarkably preserved Greek Temple or Roman mosaic; a giddily baroque Palermo and the stinking, fuming Gela; the sweep of ocean and hills below Erice, that severe, frosty town that suggests how “it must feel to be inside a diamond; its perfection is almost physically painful.” Prose has the descriptive touch, whether summoning a ghostly Phoenician outpost, the pink and ochre palaces of Ortygia, or a raw and primal fish market. She makes vivid the distinctiveness of the island’s cooking despite its use of only a few, common ingredients, and doesn’t avoid the disorientation that comes when organized crime becomes the law. She is very good with history, and Sicily has a furious one, which Prose treats with a light hand for all its action and misery, with Romans being chased out by Vandals, those in turn conquered by Ostrogoths before the island was annexed by Byzantium, only to fall to the Saracens, who built Palermo’s 300 mosques and turned it into the capital of Islamic civilization, which would soon be overwhelmed by Normans, “the Hell’s Angels of the medieval world.”
The author’s Sicilian Odyssey was brief but intense, spent peering indefatigably behind or underneath the deceptively obvious. (Photographs)