It’s refreshing to hear an author declare in no uncertain terms that they don’t like the cover of their novel. M.J. Hyland did exactly that on a recent radio interview when asked about her latest novel This is How. Not, presumably because there’s anything wrong with the cover per se – it’s an elegant and striking image – but because it has nothing to do with the novel it contains (in the case of Hyland’s book, from what of it I’ve read so far, the cover is actually actively misleading).
I wonder what Christine Dwyer Hickey makes of the cover of her latest novel, The Last Train from Liguria ? It’s not actively misleading – it gives the impression of a historical novel shrouded in mystery, which is what the book essentially is – but something about it gave me the wrong impression. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but perhaps that soft-focus photo on the cover coupled with the time-period (pre-war fascist Italy for the most part) gave me the impression of an over-easy read ready made for hollywood, the drama of fascism being used as a shortcut to tension against which to tell a love story.
From the opening chapter, though, it’s clear that Dwyer Hickey is anything but soft-focus. The story in the hands of someone-else could easily have been told in standard story-board progress: a young Irish woman takes up a post in Italy with a mysterious family, tutoring the family’s young son in parallel with the rise of fascism. The drama arrives when racial laws are introduced, as the young boy – despite his enthusiasm for fascist propoganda – is Jewish.
There’s lots more to the book than this though. It’s one of those novels where you’re regularly puzzled and pleased at the <u>way</u> the story is told. The details, the strange actions undertaken by the characters, the wonderful language used, and the observation.
An example, there’s a scene where the recently arrived Bella is sitting talking to two brash American houseguests:
Then they are off again, chattering, screeching. Telling Bella things she has no business knowing, things she can’t help wanting to hear.
The music turns everything. Notes from a piano falling slow and cold, like first snow. There is something acrobatic about it, a touch of the circus ring anyhow, and for a moment she thinks it could be a piece by Debussy, although it turns out to be neither amenable nor decisive enough for that.
It silences the American cousins anyway. It lures other sounds out into the open. A water tap running in a nearby garden; a motorcycle lowing on the street outside. Crickets, birds, insects. She can hear them all now. The sip of tea on Grace’s bulbous lips; the fidget of Amelia’s fingers on the sail of her arm sling. And the notes, dripping through the overhang; individual, abstract, each one perfecty formed and independent of the other. Each one desperate to reach the one that went before it, to escape the one coming from behind.
It’s a curious mix of a book – because there’s much that is predictable, coupled with twists and turns that are anything but (and we’re not talking about plot twists in particular – like pulling a rug out violently from under the reader. It’s more subtle than that). It’s an easy read, but is full of depth.
A very fine read, which makes me want to read more of this Irish novelist’s work (She’s previously been listed for both the Orange prize and the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award).