In 1921, the Caetani family – Duke Leone, his wife, Ofelia, and their daughter, Sveva – fled their native Italy for Vernon, B.C., in part because the Duke was anti-Mussolini and wanted to extricate his family from the reach of the burgeoning fascist leader. Laisha Rosnau’s second novel builds on the true story of the Caetanis – and in particular, their real-life employee, Miss Inge-Marie Juul – spinning a marvellous tale of lust, love, power, and loss. Inge-Marie, the novel’s narrator, is full of secrets, as are the Caetanis themselves, and Rosnau unfurls their story with maximum suspense as she moves back and forth in time showing how the three women at the heart of the novel are thwarted not only by their own choices but by those of the people they trust.
Life is certainly better for women today than it was in 1906, when Inge-Marie ran away from her family’s farm in northern Denmark. Although she is interested in sex, she doesn’t want to marry any of the farm boys her mother has lined up. She gets a job in Copenhagen and settles into a routine that may not be an improvement on what she left behind; when a man offers her a different job, she accepts, believing it’s a courtship. It isn’t, but the results are nonetheless life-changing, setting her on a journey that takes her to Cairo and Alexandria before finding herself in the employ of the Caetani family.
She begins work for the Caetanis just before Ofelia gives birth to Sveva. Ofelia is physically fragile, and over time becomes mentally compromised, but still exerts power over Inge-Marie (though she pretends the two are friends). The Caetani family’s resources are diminished in the stock market crash of 1929 but they decide to stay in B.C. When the Duke dies a few years later, the three women become ever more reclusive: as Inge-Marie says, “We made little fortresses of our former selves, our memories, as we fed ourselves pieces of our sister lives, as sweet and frothy as whipped cream or as bitter as pills broken in two, depending on the day, the moment.”
Unlike Ofelia, who tries to manage Sveva’s life (at one point even making Inge-Marie burn the younger woman’s sketches), Inge-Marie vows to ensure that the Caetani daughter enjoys the freedom she herself has lacked. The relationship between Inge-Marie and Sveva represents the real mother-daughter bond of love in the novel. The women’s lives are marked by endless tiny kindnesses, but an undercurrent of cruelty – emanating mostly from Ofelia – is slowly revealed, in part through a trove of newly discovered letters.
The lost-letter trope is a familiar one and useful from a narrative perspective: letters can help provide background or explain hidden motivations. Their latter-day reappearance can also spotlight the utter devastation that occurs as a result of their being withheld from their intended recipients. Fortunately, Rosnau never follows this literary convention into the utter darkness of, say, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but it’s close.
Rosnau has done a masterful job of using the lives of historical figures as the building blocks of a stunning work of fiction. Her source material is identified in the book’s acknowledgements, but it ultimately doesn’t matter how much of the story is true to the historical record and how much is authorial invention. The narrative is utterly spellbinding either way.