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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Book review: Virginia Baily’s novel Early One Morning is a dark tale

In Nazi-occupied Rome, a woman saves a little boy as his parents are loaded onto a truck bound for Auschwitz but a happy ending is far from assured.
A German paratrooper armed with a submachine gun stands guard over a line of civilians in occupied Rome in 1944. Getty Images
A German paratrooper armed with a submachine gun stands guard over a line of civilians in occupied Rome in 1944. Getty Images

A coded message brings Chiara Ravello out of her apartment in Nazi-occupied Rome in 1943 to a coffee shop overlooking the Jewish ghetto. Her friend, the coffee-shop owner, is desperately trying to burn some anti-fascist pamphlets before his premises are raided.

But on this particular morning, the soldiers have come instead to load the ghetto’s desperate inhabitants on to trucks, and as Chiara forces herself to watch, “to bear witness” as she puts it, in the hope that she will be able to “walk away ... to go back to her life”, her life is changed.

A well-dressed woman and her family stand out in the crowd of dishevelled and troubled faces, and as she holds Chiara’s gaze, the woman pushes her seven-year-old son away. In mourning for her fiancé who has been killed only the month before, Chiara accepts the offer of the child, claiming him as her nephew before carrying him, kicking and screaming “Mamma” all the way home.

Poor little Daniele is to prove more of a curse than a blessing in Early One Morning. Too traumatised to speak, he is much talked about and, as Virginia Baily’s narrative progresses in fits and starts, jumping from 1943 to 1973 and from Italy to Wales, the story is shaped by Daniele’s emotional distance and, then, his actual physical disappearance.

A sort of flesh-and-blood plot device, Daniele becomes the mechanism through which Baily delivers the message of her rather dark story: love requires sacrifice. And, rather like the drug addict that Daniele becomes, Baily’s women lack the instinct for self-preservation.

When Chiara flees the city taking Daniele and her sister, Cecilia, to the safety of her grandmother’s farm in the countryside, it is not long before she realises “this child will break my heart”. The harm is not malicious but the damage wrought by the separation from his parents is too grave to be overcome. “He doesn’t want to be saved. He never really did,” she realises.

Daniele is also the reason that Chiara abandons her brain-damaged, epileptic sister – the one person she had always protected and promised to keep safe – after she discovers Cecilia has been physically abusing him.

On their return to Rome, Chiara meets Simone, her late father’s mistress who will become her lifelong friend, and their frank exchange about the nature of love goes to the heart of the story: “I can’t love him only half way ...” Chiara thunders. “And what do you know about it? You gave all your love to a married man. You didn’t keep anything back, did you?”

Much like Daniele, men wait in the wings in Baily’s novel. The exception is Antonio, a priest who makes a critical intervention in Chiara’s and Daniele’s lives but, as someone wryly observes when he nervously confesses his actions: “If the priest was the hero of this story all along, she didn’t know why he had been in such a state in the hallway.”

Baily’s story about love and loss in wartime is vivid and imaginatively detailed, but the author is far less sure-footed when she attempts to bring the story into its present – Rome and Cardiff in 1973. The author’s depiction of the post-war everyday lacks the same urgency, and the description feels downright mundane in places; as for example, when Chiara wonders whether her fiancé would now have a “wrinkly bottom” had he survived the war.

These sections are saved by the emotional outpourings of the teenaged Maria, who visits Chiara to find out more about her real father, Daniele, with whom her mother had a brief affair. Baily’s portrayal of a sexually naive girl, far away from her Cardiff home and full of excitable emotion, is appropriately overblown – just like Maria’s favourite poet, Keats.

The reader’s most serious criticism will come on the last page, however, when the ink runs out before a final reckoning. Baily seems determined to keep poor Chiara’s heart in darkness.

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.

cdight@thenational.ae