Solitaria – Book Review

Revisiting my childhood is like standing on the shores of a turbulent sea: achingly beautiful and dangerous – the thunderclap of breakers, the foamlicks of crests, the way swells undulate, graceful as pregnant women, the boil of froth through sand in a rip tide. And I, who never learned to swim, long to submerge myself in those pristine days when miracles were possible, when everyone still loved me. – from Solitaria, page 107 –

Vito Santoro’s body is unearthed at an Italian villa and this discovery sends shock waves through his large, extended family. For decades, Vito’s sister, Piera, has been telling the family Vito was sending her letters from Argentina – so what is the truth about his death? Piera seems to be the only one with answers, but she is refusing to talk to anyone except her Canadian nephew, David. Eager to solve the mystery, Vito’s siblings, wife, nephews and nieces converge on Piera’s villa in Italy where long ago secrets are revealed, rivalries are re-established, and the answers to Vito’s apparent murder become murkier than ever.

Genni Gunn’s novel, Solitaria, is told primarily during the 1940s in the first person voice of Piera, a solitary and intractable woman who is the matriarch of her family.

Donna Piera – La Solitaria, as she is referred to by the townspeople – is not docile or senile, ill or still. She rarely goes out of her house, yet people of her generation cross themselves when they hear her name – either as a protection against her or as a benediction towards her. She is not bedridden, penniless, or feeble. She interacts with the world outside her house through the telephone, with a tongue so sharp and barbed, people inspect their ears after a call, looking for puncture marks. – from Solitaria, page 136-7

Piera is controlling, manipulative and weaves tales from her childhood which at times seem hardly believable. In fact, Piera as narrator is unreliable. Her sisters and brothers have different memories of the same events and her sister-in-law (Vito’s wife, Teresa, who barely tolerates Piera) remembers Vito as a dedicated and devoted husband. The reason for the conflict between Piera and Teresa becomes more clear as the story unspools. Through Piera’s voice, Gunn explores the unreliability of memory, creating an uneasy novel where the truth is always a little out of reach.

Piera’s story is not the only thread which weaves through this literary novel. David, her nephew, is revealed in alternating chapters which take place in modern times. David is a man unsettled. He carries on a long-distance relationship with a woman named Bernette who is still a mystery to him. David seems to be as solitary in nature as Piera.

Two marvelous years of nothing. They hardly know each other. Three times this past year, they’ve met in a city mid-way between their homes and fucked for a weekend. Weak. Weak. End. – from Solitaria, page 10 –

Gunn meshes the lives of David and Piera to reveal the underpinnings of a complicated family. Vito’s murder becomes the lynchpin around which the lives of the characters spin. Through the memories of Vito, the reader begins to get a glimpse of the convoluted family relationships. If the characters cannot agree as to what happened to Vito, they can agree that he was the catalyst for the drama and dysfunction in a family whose lives were dictated by tradition, family secrets, and political and social upheaval in 1940s Italy.

The children were all seated in a circle around Vito. He was the stranger they feared and wanted to become. He was their black sheep, the disgraced one, their brother, their hero. – from Solitaria, page 95-

Gunn’s novel is an elaborate narrative which is quite literary in style. The pace of the book is slow at times, especially those chapters which deal with the modern day relationships. The sections where the reader gets to hear Piera’s unique voice are more compelling. Despite an ending which I could see coming, the novel manages to keep the reader engaged until the final page.

Readers interested in Italian history during the 1940s, and those who enjoy family sagas and literary fiction will find Gunn’s novel an interesting look at the complexities of human behavior within a family.

Solitaria was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize this year.

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Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. Born in Trieste, she came to Canada  when she was eleven. She has published nine books: three novels—Solitaria, Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two short story collections—Hungers and On The Road; two poetry collections— Faceless and Mating in Captivity. As well, she has translated from Italian two collections of poems—Devour Me Too and Traveling in the Gait of a Fox by renowned Italian author, Dacia Maraini. One of Genni’s books, Mating in Captivity, has been translated into Italian. Two more are forthcoming next year. Read more about Gunn and her work by visiting the author’s website.

FTC Disclosure: Many thinks to the publisher who provided me a copy of this book through Diane Saarinen for a blog tour of the novel.



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  1. Oh wow this looks beautiful even if there’s more emphasis on painting the picture than there is on the actual picture. ;O)

  2. I do like to read about the 1940s, but the slow pace of this book might not work for me.

    • zibilee on October 28, 2011 at 09:25

    Slow and intricate with an unreliable narrator? yes, please! This one sounds wonderful, and I am glad that you reviewed it because I probably would not have heard of it elsewhere. Very thoughtful and detailed review. I loved it!

    • Kailana on October 29, 2011 at 05:36

    Usually when a book is on the Giller list I have paid attention to it or read it, but not this year… I am really slacking!

    • Wendy on October 30, 2011 at 08:27

    Pam: Gunn’s writing is really lovely.

    Kathy: It is quite slow moving…

    Heather: I hope you get a chance to read the book…sounds like it is right up your alley!

    Kailana: I watch the lists too 🙂

  3. Thank you for the lovely review. I hope your readers will enjoy the book.

    • Wendy on November 15, 2011 at 07:28

    Genni: You are very welcome! I was happy to be on the tour!

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