What We're Reading: The Madonna of the Mountains, By Elise Valmorbida

Nora and Luna are excited to be taking part in Faber & Faber’s blog tour for Elise Valmorbida's ‘The Madonna of the Mountains’. It's the first novel in Faber's partnership with Liberty London, and has been chosen as The Times Book of the Month.

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Elise Valmorbida’s novel begins in 1923, with the young woman Maria Vittoria, 25 years old, struggling to find a husband. Her father has gone away to try and find her a suitor, and Maria prays to her statue of the Madonna of the Mountain that he will return with a handsome and strong man. 

We later follow her through a number of years; a growing family facing adversity through the rise of Fascism, World War II, and dreams of emigration. The Madonna of the Mountain remains a steady figure in Maria’s life, providing her with comfort and advice through difficult times. Driven by piety, honour and her love for her family, Maria is a strong protagonist for novel set during a difficult era.

"1923: Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk.

Her father has gone to find her a husband. He’s taken his mule, a photograph and a pack of food: home-made sopressa sausage, cold polenta, a little flask of wine—no need to take water—the world is full of water.

There are no eligible men in this valley or the next one, and her father will not let her marry just anyone, and now, despite Maria’s years, she is still healthy. Her betrothed will see all that. He’ll be looking for a woman who can do the work.

Maria can do the work. Everyone in the contrà says that.

And the Lord knows Maria will need to be able to work. Fascism blooms as crops ripen, the state craves babies just as the babies cry for food. Maria faces a stoney path, but one she will surely climb to the summit.

In this sumptuous and elegant novel you will taste the bigoli co l’arna, touch the mulberry leaves cut finer than organdie, and feel the strain of one woman attempting to keep her family safe in the most dangerous of times.”

The Fascist period is one which produced some of Italy’s greatest writing, and Elise Valmorbida’s novel is one which, for me, captures the essence of this period with sensitivity and excellence. In a way, the novel reminds me of Natalia Ginzburg’s masterpiece of an autobiography, Lessico Famigliare. A focus on strong female characters runs throughout the two, and an emphasis on the importance of the maternal, along with the insertion of dialect family sayings and phrases, all creating rich layers of gripping language and storytelling. Whilst The Madonna of the Mountains is not autobiographical, Valmorbida’s Italian-Australian heritage shines through, with an accurate depiction of the intricacies of Italian village life, presumably drawn somewhat from family histories. Although the misogyny of the past is very much present in The Madonna of the Mountains, whilst she works hard to be a good wife and mother, Maria defies her husband’s rages and is the head and protector of the family. We feel a strong affection for her, and through Valmorbida’s evocative writing, we feel every guilt and sadness she also feels. It is a pleasure to read a story from the point of view of a mother — often a background figure in narrative literature, we realise the importance of a mother in holding the family together, and the bravery of a wartime wife is evident through Maria’s story. 

Being an Italian student, I loved to see Valmorbida’s use of Italian dialect (specifically Veneto dialect) throughout the novel. Italy is a country with a rich linguistic heritage, and I am a strong believer in how a person’s language can tell us more about them. Whilst the non-Italian speaking reader may miss out on the finer intricacies of the dialect (which is all translated, but into standard English), what does come across is the strong patrimony and sense of identity passed down through these sayings and language. Valmorbida’s linguistic attention to detail is great — down to naming the somewhat miserable village ‘Fosso’, which translates literally as ‘ditch’. 

What strikes me most about this novel is the richness of the culture which Valmorbida describes, and the extent of her research which doesn’t go unnoticed in the creation of such a well-written and historically accurate narrative. Whilst particularly exciting for someone like me with an enthusiasm for all things Italian, I think this is a novel which has a wide appeal and which will grip any reader. It is a heart-wrenching yet poignant tale of love and family survival, which is definitely not to be missed. 

You can read the other reviews in the ‘Madonna of the Mountains’ Blog Tour, as well as a great photo journal from the author on the following blogs:

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Why did you think it important to include Italian dialect in your novel, especially for an audience who for the most part may not be Italian speakers? What do you think this adds to the novel?

There are many conventional ideas about Italy. Stereotypes come from somewhere, but they are limited and limiting. The world of The Madonna of the Mountains is very specific. I wanted to evoke daily life in an almost-documentary way, but with intimacy, not distance. The story is set in the Veneto, and I’ve paid as much attention to language as to the natural world, the local culture, and local experiences of war—Italy’s North-East was still being devastated long after the liberation of Rome. My characters are ordinary people and of their time. They’re not resistance heroes or public figures. They’re the sort of people who are given no voice in conventional historical texts. How would they speak? It was a creative challenge for me to give them self-expression through thought and dialogue—I’m not referring simply to the use of dialect or national Italian, but ways of thinking, ways of seeing the world. Of course they would use the Veneto language, and I chose the dialectal variant known as Central Veneto (or padovano-vicentino-polesano) which spans the territory of Maria Vittoria’s story. The sayings, vocabulary and spelling are particular. I hope Italian speakers enjoy the rhythms and sounds. Non-Italian speakers can lean comfortably on my English translations. 

Are there any particular parts of your family heritage which inspired the novel? Is it in any way biographical, and if so, who inspired the character of Maria Vittoria?

Every novel contains elements taken from real life and real people, and there are bits and pieces of family stories in here, but no single biographical story. Unlike the characters in The Madonna of the Mountains, all my grandparents emigrated to Australia in the 1920s. Some of the family moved back to Italy years later and emigrated again (quite a feat). I have been inspired by their memories of wartime, and hand-me-down tales they were told by an earlier generation. There’s also a huge element of the book that emerged from somewhere deep inside of me. I grew up Italian in Australia, and as a child I was spellbound by descriptions of Italy, world wars, migrations. The migrant community was very sociable, strongly connected—and full of stories. It would have been sheer wastefulness not to put some of that, and my own personal experiences, into the mix. But all this is not enough for the task of writing a novel, shaping a narrative, creating characters that ‘live’. I started with my stash of notebooks (decades of handwritten scribbles and sketches) and years of focused research: Italian and English fiction and non-fiction, films, special-interest websites, talks, conferences, trips to Italy… Last but certainly not least, The Madonna of the Mountains is a work of imagination—ideas that occur in dreams and other random ‘off-guard’ times, or purposeful brainstorming with my writing group—then countless hours of crafting, word by word.

Anna WardComment