Last Train from Liguria by Christine Dwyer Hickey


I do not remember where I saw a reference to this 2009 book and I don’t know the Irish author, but her work is amazing on several counts.

First the perfect descriptions, like this one of early summer on a London street in the 1930s:

Bella moved to the front window. Down on the street early summer was showing: more people than usual, walking at a more leisurely pace, in paler clothes made of lighter cloth. Muslin on windows instead of heavy drapes; a dark red mat airing like a dog’s tongue from one window down the way. Across the way, a housemaid scrubbing a step stopped and turned her face up to the sun. Bella let down the sash and leaned out to the smell of new paint and the gnashing of a gardener’s shears.

Or the startling ones:  the description of photographs on a grand piano as “a whole regatta of silver frames appear to be crossing a sleek black lake” and another of a miserable cafe in a French town where the “scuttery stew” was slopped out at each table from a bucket and even the rain was nasty: “The rain slobbered all over the windows.”

The story alternates among several lives: Edward, whose story begins as he flees Dublin in 1924 and lands in Italy; Anna in Dublin in the Celtic Tiger days of the mid-1990s; but Bella, first in London, then in the Bodighera, Italy shortly before the war has by far the most attention. In her 30s Bella goes to Italy to take care of the son of an wealthy young woman whose elderly husband is near death. In the upheaval of the Lami family due to his death, Bella and several others in the household become little Alec’s family. Eventually they must make decisions to protect Alec’s life, as it turns out that Signora Lami is Jewish. Bella comes into her own through her love of little Alec and her capable management of the household. Her connection to the unknowable Edward and her kindly teaching English to the women who work in the household make them a complicated, but loving unit.

When the time comes to escape from Italy, Signora Lami has planned it all precisely for Edward, Bella, Alec, and Signora’s new baby girl. This section was hard for me: nerve-wracking efforts to escape Nazis is not my favorite. I can’t say I wasn’t warned: I knew that Last Train from Liguria was not a book about late night travel in Italy.

Meanwhile, in Dublin in the 1990s Anna is visiting her Nonna in the asylum where she is confined in her old age. She raised Anna after her mother’s death. After Nonna made a brief escape from the facility and was injured, Anna learned from the doctor’s examination that her grandmother not only hadn’t had any children, she hadn’t even had sex. We learn this before the story of Bella in Italy, but we can guess that there is a connection between Nonna and Bella. After all, a gun that appears in Act I must be fired by Act III, as we learned from Chekhov.

I love the construction of the novel: the story unfolds in a most appealing way. Best of all was the character of Bella/Nonna: a more sympathetic and complete character I cannot imagine.

Christine Dwyer Hickey, Last Train from Liguria, Atlantic Books, 2009, 392 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.

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