A strong woman defies small-town hostility



Nino Ricci.


238 pages. $19. Valle de Sole, a mountain village in southern Italy, is so sequestered by geography and its villagers so are barricaded behind their cloistered beliefs in doctrinaire Catholicism and superstitious folklore that it exists outside time, like Brigadoon.

It is a primitive village whose physical presence and way of life are richly imagined and detailed by Nino Ricci in his award-winning first novel, "The Book of Saints." Yet Mr. Ricci, who was born and raised in a small Canadian town, visited only briefly in 1971 the southern Italian village that his mother lived in before emigrating to Canada, and that Valle de Sole is based on. In fact, when he was writing the novel, he has said he "began to develop nostalgia for this world that I had never lived in."

After being rejected by the major Canadian publishers, Mr. Ricci's novel was published in 1990 by Cormorant Books, a small rural literary press. The novel was an immediate success and went on to win several international literary awards, including Canada's top literary honor, the Governor General's Award for fiction.

From the first marvelous sentence on, you are mesmerized by the strong-willed, passionate, proud, rebellious Cristina, her 7-year-old son Vittorio Innocente, and the village of Valle de Sole where "the mundane and everyday verge always on the miraculous."

Cristina's hubristic fall from grace is portrayed through the eyes of Vittorio, who regards his mother with awe, adoration, fear and puzzlement. The story opens in 1960. Vittorio lives with his mother and her father, the mayor. Vittorio's violent-tempered father emigrated to America four years earlier -- to Cristina's relief.

Then a serpent -- quite literally -- appears to spoil Vittorio's paradise. He finds his mother in the stables with a blue-eyed man, and after the man leaves, she is bitten by a snake. This event initiates a groundswell of rumors and whispers about Cristina and her swollen belly, which Vittorio, at first, believes is due to the snakebite.

In the face of the villagers' denunciations of her pregnancy, Cristina remains contemptuous and defiant, blind to the effect of her behavior on Vittorio. He is taunted and beaten up by schoolmates. His teacher takes pity on him and gives him "The Lives of the Saints" to read, which consoles him. Inevitably Cristina chooses to emigrate, but the voyage to Canada is ill-fated.

A familiar tale in many ways (it is as if "The Scarlet Letter" had been written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), it still is one of vitality and depth of feeling and imagination. Cristina's characterization has a luminous intensity, as does Vittorio's narration. Though Vittorio's comprehension is limited to that of a 7-year-old, the lyrical, melancholic tone of his voice, combined with the meticulously crafted sentences, gives his narration a darker, more complex edge.

When the novel concludes, it leaves you with a sense of loss -- for the lot of Cristina, and also that the story has ended. But only for now: This is just the first volume of a projected trilogy focusing on Vittorio's life in Canada.

Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.

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