Contrived first novel sends a troubled American academic to a small town in Sicily.
Joan is the illegitimate daughter of Russell Severance, an American archeologist, and Simona Origo, an anti-Mafia photographer killed in Palermo by a car bomb when Joan was a teen. After years of living aimlessly in America, 35-year-old Joan returns to Sicily to investigate an archive of 16th-century probate records in the tiny town of Valparuta. The mayor who invited her in hopes of sparking tourism doesn’t know she’s just been fired from Brown University for attacking a student. It’s immediately obvious from Joan’s narration that she’s in serious emotional trouble, though we don’t really know why. Equally under the weather is Valparuta’s archivist, Chiesa, whose dilated pupils signal his drug use. Mysterious conversations with a menacing auto mechanic and the enigmatic desk clerk at Joan’s hotel suggest that something very odd is going on in Valparuta. Then, Joan discovers in the archives the confessions of people called benandanti, who in centuries past sent their spirits forth from their sleeping bodies to fight with witches and defend the village. Drawing on folk wisdom inherited from her Sicilian grandmother, Joan discerns that benandanti and witches still inhabit Valparuta, and Chiesa is one of the supernaturally gifted good guys. What exactly happens during these night battles, or what their purpose might be, remains unclear. The author has an irritating habit of dropping in peculiar events, like the request for Chiesa to bring a bathroom scale to the mortally ill mayor’s house. Pages later readers are more likely to be irritated than stunned to learn that “Chiesa has gone to weigh the mayor for God’s reckoning.” Portentous statements like this abound in Bloxam’s well-written but murky text, which is also replete with bad smells, bodily fluids, grimy hallways, burning buildings and other physical indicators of existential angst.
The sections about Joan’s parents are the best because they’re specific and convincing; the ongoing-struggle-between-good-and-evil is so vague and poorly motivated that it verges on ridiculous.