Two strangers save a child in Rome during WWII-a split'second decision that will have powerful reverberations for decades to come.
In 1943, one young woman, Chiara Ravello, is about to flee occupied Rome for the safety of her grandparents' house in the hills. Another has been herded onto a truck with her husband and their children, and will shortly be driven off into the darkness.
In that brief moment, before she has time to think about what she is doing, Chiara makes a decision that changes her life forever. Consumed already by thoughts of the hazardous journey that looms ahead and the sister who needs her constant care, Chiara now finds herself responsible, suddenly, for a child-a child with no papers who refuses to speak.
Three decades later, Chiara lives alone in Rome, an elegant, self-contained, self-possessed woman to all appearances quite content with a life that revolves around work, friends, music, and the theater. But always in the background is the shadow of Daniele, the boy from the truck, whose absence and the havoc he wreaked on her world haunt her every moment. For so long she succeeds in suppressing the painful memories and keeping her heartache at bay, but when she receives a call from a teenage girl with a surprising link to Daniele, Chiara knows that it is time for her to face up to her past.
Suspenseful, inspiring, and gorgeously told, this is an epic novel of love, loss, and war's ripple effects through the years.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Virginia Baily holds a PhD and MA in English from the University of Exeter. She founded and coedits Riptide, a short-story journal. She is also the coeditor of the political series of the Africa Research Bulletin. She lives in Exeter, England.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Virginia Baily
Rome, 1943: Mussolini's government has fallen, and into the vacuum of power left behind, Nazi troops establish direct control over the Eternal City. Virginia Baily's arresting new novel, Early One Morning, opens in that moment of peril, as truckloads of Jews are being rounded up onto trucks, readied for a journey toward their extermination. A young woman named Chiara Ravello makes a fateful decision in that moment, one that will set in motion a sequence of events that will define lives and unfold over decades to come.
Steeped in the history of Italy in both the years following World War Two and in its vibrant life decades later, Early One Morning weaves a tale of family, sacrifice, secrets, and love that carries with it the charge of a generation's untold stories. Although the author lives in Exeter, England, this summer she visited New York City, and I had the chance to speak for a few minutes with Virginia Baily about her novel and the real events that inspired it. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: The beginning of Early One Morning is set in Rome. It begins in 1943. Mussolini has fled. It's a very perilous moment.
Virginia Bally: Yes. Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Grand Council in July, which followed the landing of the Allies in Sicily and the American bombing of Rome in July as well that made the Italian government think, We don't want to go on with this war. They ousted Mussolini, and various other things happened. He was afterward freed by the Germans and set up in a puppet state in the north, but that didn't really affect Rome. So when the novel begins, early one morning, in October 1943, it's an occupied city.
BNR: It's no longer a Nazi-allied state they are in direct control. Of course, this bears very particularly on the Jewish population of Rome. VB: Yes. In fact, the government has fled. The king fled, the government fled. There is no Italian government as such in Rome. So yes, it's completely Nazi-controlled. Until this point, the Jewish population of Rome had been relatively . . . not that safe, but relatively safe. Because Mussolini brought in the racial laws in 1936. For example, Jewish children could no longer go to school. Jewish people could no longer exercise certain professions. But they hadn't been transporting them, until that day.
BNR: Your story begins with a very heart-wrenching scene in which a young woman in her twenties who is one of the central figures of this story is on her way to do some kind of clandestine work with a man that she knows. She enters the Jewish ghetto and discovers this massive transportation taking place.
VB: She's been called there because there's all this movement going on, this upheaval, and because she's involved in this covert anti-Fascist work, but has nothing . . . She has nothing to do with this, and it has nothing to do with her or them. But she happens to witness it. So she decides that, at the very least, she must bear witness. All she intends to do is stand and watch, and not avert her eyes. Then a thought in her head . . . She has her sister at home, for whom she is the caregiver. Her thought is: She will bear witness, and then she will go and collect her sister, and they will flee the city.
BNR: She's in great terror for her own life at that moment. There's nothing stopping the soldiers from deciding that she ought to be rounded up or arrested for being where she shouldn't be.
VB: Yes. Although in fact, those people who were taken, they were checked, and there was only one non-Jewish person who went, who wouldn't leave the woman she cared for. But yes, in that moment she would not have known that. It would have been absolutely terrifying.
And then her eyes meet the eyes of a young woman on the back of a truck, and their gazes lock, and she becomes aware that this young woman is pushing her child, her oldest child, who is a little boy, forward, and just looking at Chiara, my heroine, and a communication takes place, and she acts in that moment and claims the child.
BNR: She says that she is his aunt.
VB: Yes, because she knows that her papers are looked at, and it will show that she's not married, so she can't say he is her child. She gets away with it. That's what's astonishing. What inspired the idea in the first place, for me, was an account I read, an amazing account, mostly firsthand, based on people's testimonies. It was written by a Jewish intellectual critic called Giacomo DiBenedetti, and it's called October 16, 1943. He wrote it in 1944. It was published then. So he didn't at the time know what the fate of those people who were rounded up that day, was, and he didn't know I've forgotten how many exactly, but about 1,200 that were taken on that day only sixteen survived and came back. But he had gathered lots of information, and himself, he escaped that day.
Among many anecdotes that he tells is one about a woman who tried to claim one of the children. It was a girl in his story. The child just screamed so much for her mother that they took her back and put her on the back of the truck, and she went. Always, ever since I've read that, I've had in the back of my mind this idea, what if the child hadn't screamed so loudly?
BNR: Rather than straightforwardly tell the story of what then goes on their lives, you leap forward in time, and layer in the long legacy of this act. How did you decide to tell the story in this way?
VB: It took some convolutions to get to that way of telling it. The desire to tell that story, of Chiara taking the child, was huge, and demanded that I told it, in a way. But I kept thinking . . . at the beginning, I thought I was writing a sort of coming-of- age story of a sixteen-year-old going to Rome in the '70s. That was one of my ideas, anyway. But this other story kept going, "Yeah, but I'm the real story." I said, "No no, it's too difficult; let me write about this sixteen-year-old in Rome in the '70s."
BNR: So this really started as the idea of a novel that would be set in the 1970s, and to have this particular kind of experience.
VB: Yes. Obviously, Maria isn't me some of her life story overlaps, but a lot of her experience of being a sixteen-year- old in Rome, and Rome being her stage perhaps, echoes some of my experience of being alone in Rome. She's a much faster learner than I am, so she acquires Italian much more quickly than I did, and the names of pastas and all sorts of things. It took me years of going there before I got that. But yes, there was that interest, and that was partly sparked by older son saying, "We'll never go to Rome in the '70s; we'll never go to Rome before mass tourism why don't you write about that, Mum?" So it started off like that. And I wrote a lot of that. There's an awful lot of that, that didn't get used. It's just a huge hinterland, really, where I almost lavished more attention on the detail of it, the less important to the story it was.
I sort of finished it, and tidied it up and looked at it, and thought, There's a hole in the middle of this, and the hole is the real story. So it was a long way around. But it was kind of good as well, because it was almost like a woven fabric but I hadn't cut it right, and I hadn't sewn it together right, or something. There was a kind of reluctance with addressing something as big as how might it be, how might the aftermath be of such an event. So I suppose that's why I had to sneak up on it from this, or ambush it almost. That was how I did it. Then it started to flow, on and off.
BNR: Obviously, you were able to draw on a lot of personal experience for the parts of this that are set in the '70s. For the historical part of it, did it require a lot of archival research? Did you feel that your own sort of knowledge of Rome, or your circle of acquaintance, provided you with enough raw material? Or did you have to go deep in the library to get this?
VB: It was a combination. But the research, in a way, was done a long time ago the basic research. Because then, after I fell in love when I was sixteen, I studied Italian and did a degree in it, and that included literature and neorealist cinema. So some of it owes a lot to Rome: Open City, the film by Roberto Rossellini, and I kind of fell in love with that whole period. Even though it's such an awful period for the people of Rome, it was a very intensely lived nine months of the Nazi occupation, and it inspired loads of works of fiction and the films. A whole new era in Italian cinema started then.
BNR: A new era in Italian cinema that goes on to influence world cinema and storytelling.
VB: Exactly. So I think my imagination was fed on that from when I was an undergraduate, and then I went on to do a master's. I didn't finish but started into the Literature of Resistance in France and Italy, and discovered that there really wasn't a literature of resistance in Italy, and then I started asking why and became aware of the effect of Fascism, really of twenty years of censorship.
BNR: Very different than the fact that in Paris you had a very sudden takeover of institutions that had been, right up until the invasion, producing hotly dissenting anti-Fascist writings.
VB: In fact, if you were French and you were an intellectual and you were a writer, it would have been a legitimate response that you wrote. But in Italy it wasn't. All of that had changed over the previous twenty years. So you were just as likely to fight, or you were more likely to be in exile if you'd opposed . . . or dead, you know.
That was really how I discovered the Italian Resistance, which I hadn't even really known existed before.
BNR: It's not much talked about, certainly in America. We talk about the French Resistance, not the Resistance in Italy.
VB: No. For the purpose of my research, I used the stories that were written in the Partisan press. I used to sit in the Gramsci Institute and be brought these original newspapers, and photocopied them. I mean, you wouldn't be allowed to do it now.
BNR: So you have your own archive.
VB: I have my own archive. So it sort of was born there, and I had that to refer to, I guess. And the fact that I go to Italy all the time, and I have my aunt there and she loves all of that literature and cinema, too. But I did have to do some historical research as well to make sure I didn't get my facts wrong. But the feeling of it really comes from Moravia and Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg.
BNR: You're drawing, in a way, on that culture there to give you your sense of Rome in that moment.
BNR: Before we started this recording, you mentioned that you often write via dictation. Did you dictate a lot of Early One Morning?
VB: No, I didn't. This was in the last few months of writing it, when I was very much in the zone. I was finishing it off, and I had a kind of deadline. I wanted to finish it midsummer, last summer. So I needed to stop doing what I have a tendency to do, which is go up alleys and write a plethora of detail about things that will not appear in the book. Which has a good function as well, in that I think it enriches and deepens it, but I didn't need to do that at that stage, because I'd already created the world. I just needed to finish telling the story. It was a way of enabling me to focus and finish telling the story that I would . . . every time I felt I was going off, I would pull myself back. It's almost like a way of pushing through. And also, seriously considering a different alternative in the narrative without having committed to paper. Because committing it to paper screen is a different stage in the process, is more of a commitment than just talking aloud.
BNR: Did you find the quality of your prose changing? Do your sentences become different? Are they punchier? Are they more meandering? I'm curious.
VB: When I'm speaking, they can be as meandering as I want. When I am doing that musing-aloud, that is all it is. That's not the prose that it will end up being, and probably not even the story that will be written. It's just sparking ideas.
BNR: You're recording where you want to be.
VB: I think I'm allowing my mind to work in a different way as well. It reminds me of being a kid and revising for exams, and learning poems off by heart, or bits of Shakespearean plays, and the way of doing it for me was by walking up and down and reciting. So there's something in the physical movement as well.
BNR: After reading your book, what would you say if someone says, "I want to know more about what inspired this book"? What's the book of which you'd say, "You have to read this," whether it's fiction or nonfiction?
VB: I can only have one? Well I'd probably have Alberto Moravia's La Ciociara. It's called Two Women in English. There was a film of it subsequently. I'd probably have that. Because it has a lot of detail (probably too much, in a way, because he liked lists over-much, I think) of Rome at the time, and then the two women, a mother and a daughter, flee up into the hills. So life as it was in the hills, and what was going on all around, which is also reflected in my book, of Italian soldiers running, trying not to get requisitioned or shot, or sent to labor camps, the desperate desire for the Allies to come and save them, and that took a long, long time.
But I'm not sure that his insight into the female psyche is that brilliant, on the whole. For that I would turn to Natalia Ginzburg. She's been translated, I think, a lot. Fantastic evocation of women and men as well. And her life story, because she was married to Leone Ginzburg, who was an editor for Einaudi and was a Jew they were sentenced to internal exile. So I sort of reference that. It may be her, then. In terms of a novelist who you could read now, and is very accessible, very, very simple, limpid, transparent prose style, a lovely lightness even when she's talking about very hard things.
October 7, 2015
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
loved the story, the end was a nice heart warming surprise
Urgently called to the Jewish quarter in Rome, Chiara Ravello is a witness to the mass roundup of Italian Jews by German soldiers. Impulsively she claims one of the young boys she spies is her nephew, and after some tense moments, manages to spirit him away to the apartment she shares with her disabled sister. Never married and having no children of her own, she will do anything to save this child she has fallen so helplessly in love with. This story about love, secrets and heartache, and ultimately forgiveness and redemption really made an impression on me. The courageous heroine left me wondering if I could have done as well under similar circumstances. The young boy she rescues seems so troubled, almost beyond redemption. It made me think about how sometimes people do the wrong thing for the right reason. The only part I did not like was when Maria finds out the truth about her parentage. She really lashes out at the people who had raised and loved her all her life. I just thought her reaction was a bit much, perhaps a little too overwrought. On the whole, a very good read.
This story could have been really good but too many switches from past to present- also could not get a good read on who Chiara was-