They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s definitely one way I go about picking my books. I don’t know if it was the flowers or the fact that it reminds me of a painting in my grandmother’s house, but when I stumbled across Catherine Banner’s The House at the Edge of Night, I knew I had to read it.
I have to say, it isn’t quite like any other story I’ve read, mostly due to the fact that it takes place over many years and the primary protagonist sometimes changes just as the temporal setting does. (I suppose the closest story like this as far as structure and focus is Caramelo.) Spanning from 1914 to 2009, Banner follows the lives of the Esposito family, starting with Amedeo–an orphan who finds success as a doctor and later a barman–his children, principally his daughter Maria-Grazia–who grew up in leg braces but whose character proves to be more than enough support for her–and eventually her own children and grandchildren.
It takes place on the small Italian island of Castellamare (although it looked like the tip of Sicily when I looked it up on Google Maps) and spends some time exploring the idea of feeling trapped in a provincial town and wanting to explore the greater world. However, for the Esposito family, even though some of them (like Maria-Grazia’s brothers during World War Two) do escape the island, more often than not, the outside world comes knocking on Castellamare’s door–for example, when Robert Carr, a downed English paratrooper washes up on the island and wins its collective heart.
The novel also explores the concepts of storytelling, familial duty, evolution with society, and faith. The whole island is devout to its patron Saint Agata, who was said to have saved the island from ruin generations before. Saint Agata, in a sense, acts as a catalyst for many of the characters in that she often provides them a sense of inspiration to push on, even when life-altering events occur like the world wars, terrible storms, and even the recession of the early 2000s.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I loved how at the beginning of each section opened with an excerpt from Amedeo’s storybook (which is something of a motif throughout the novel): it set up the next chunk of time and gave some context to the events to come. That said, I loved the motif of storytelling because it’s so accessible. We all tell stories and find different meanings or significance in them, whether it’s comfort, strength, motivation…
I also enjoyed how real the characters seemed. Even though there wasn’t a ton of dialogue (which is probably my only complaint), the descriptions of their being, actions, and attitudes were both amusing and thorough. I liked how even with focalization shifts between Amedeo, his daughter, her sons, and granddaughter, all the characters developed a greater sense of roundness as the story progressed. In fact, Banner’s description is so vivid, Saint Agatha herself and even Castellamare seem to have their own breaths of life!
I would definitely recommend this book to pretty much anyone–if you enjoy storytelling, historical fiction, a little drama, a little romance, this book has all those things. However, if you prefer a book with more dialogue between characters, you might find yourself just slightly disappointed–while there are definitely conversations between characters, the dialogue overall is somewhat sparse, which may make it seem like a bit of a slow read.
That’s all I have for this week. As always, feel free to leave me recommendations for future posts! Look out for my post next week, I’m going to be going back to author Philippa Gregory, but this time, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on her book The Queen’s Fool.