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Where She Has Gone

by Nino Ricci

My symptoms: I’m a little out-of-step and melancholic, more than usually prone to pondering, distracted, trying to get my focus back on imminent objects while I also do my best to hold on to the place I’ve just come from. It sounds, I know, as if I’m lagging in the wake of travel, and that what I ought to do is get caught up on sleep.

It does feel that way, too – not that I need to sleep, but that I’m just back from journeying. I didn’t go by way of geography, however. It’s a distance of novels I covered: Nino Ricci’s now-complete trilogy that began with Lives of the Saints (1990), moved on through In a Glass House (1993), and concludes, stunningly, in Where She Has Gone.

“A real journey breaks your life in two,” Shiva Naipaul wrote, and the further I got re-reading Ricci’s first two novels before approaching the third, the more that idea kept repeating itself to me. By the time I’d finished, it seemed like something as powerful as that had indeed happened: that while I read, life arranged itself into three pieces conforming to Ricci’s three Vittorio Innocente novels, that all around me language, landscape, memory, morality were suddenly connected to the fiction I had in hand.

It’s not the first time I’ve been borne away in this way, but this does register as an extraordinary reading event in that truly satisfying literary trilogies are so rare. I’ve known only two before now: Robertson Davies’ Deptford novels and John Updike’s baker’s trilogy of Rabbit Angstrom books, the unforgettable archipelago in which I spent last autumn.

The thing about trilogies like these is that the reader is free to remove any single book from the collective and read it – and enjoy it – on its own terms. But – and this is especially the case with Ricci – readers should also know what they’re missing, because these are cases where the wholes are astonishingly more than the sum of parts.

There’s no doubt about it: Where She Has Gone is a magnificent novel in its own right, beautifully balanced, expertly paced, and executed in a prose that’s so sure, so smooth in its operations, so expressive, that it might be said to thrum with a natural life. And yet for those who want to feel the book’s full effect, I strongly advise starting back with Lives of the Saints.

Those who do so will be suitably versed in the story so far, attuned to the subtleties of plot and theme, readied for the lessons in truth and memory, in longing and loss. What’s more, they will be appreciative of the ways in which Ricci’s voice has matured. It’s the only way, really, to understand just how good a novel Where She Has Gone is.

All of which is to say that it does feel like I’ve been out of the country these last few weeks, and that while I was away, I found places to quicken the mind and heart, to awaken curiosity, sympathy, and understanding. I’m just not sure yet whether I’m entirely happy to be home.

Rereading the first two books more or less confirmed my original opinions of them. Lives of the Saints won Ricci a Governor General’s Award, justly so. It was an impressive, affecting work of tragedy. Vittorio was six years old when first we found him then, living in the Italian mountain village of Valle del Sole with his mother, Cristina, and his grandfather. Vittorio’s father, Mario, was no more than “a shadowy blank” in his memory: he’d emigrated to “a new part of America called Canada,” where he was trying to make his fortune as a farmer.

On the surface, Valle del Sole – “one of a hundred villages … flung across the Italian Apennines like scattered stones” – was a slumberous place, but it soon becomes clear that it was also home to vipers: superstition, vicious gossip, hypocrisy, and general mean-mindedness lived there under the scorch of summer sun. They all rose up to strike when Cristina became pregnant by a man not her husband. Cristina decided finally that the family would have to leave the village and make its own way to Canada, whatever the cost, in lira or otherwise. The cost turned out to be dire indeed: Cristina died giving birth to a daughter shipboard on the way from Naples to Halifax. As Lives of the Saints came to its end, Vittorio was, then, entirely at sea, gazing into an uncharted future.

In a Glass House found Vittorio – or, as he became in Canada, Victor – in his future, and what a bleak place it was. Victor and his half-sister, soon to be named Rita, ended up with Mario on his 30-acre farm in southwestern Ontario, but the children might as well have been orphans. Mario was angry and absent; the farm, as Victor put it, felt like “a place cut off from the world” where the emotional weather cultivated “an odd hollowness … like a gloom.”

The novel itself was a little like that the first time I read it: cut off, hollowed out, unrelieved in its gloom. Victor, for his part, was aging into adolescence, but he remained largely unfathomable emotionally and as a reader at the time, I was frustrated by that. I remember comparing notes when it came out with others who’d read it and finding they saw it the same way: in another phrase of Victor’s, it was too much like a journey through fog.

In a Glass House is a dark book and in it, Victor is a resistant surface, but having read Where She Has Gone, I’m able now to allow for that, to understand how the middle piece fits – and, in its way, completes – the whole.

If you had to sweep the first two books together in generalization, you could say that they were about how fraught families are, how unpredictable, how dangerously charged are the currents that connect husband and wife, father and son. And brother and sister, since Where She Has Gone takes up the story of Victor and Rita. Halfway through the second novel, Rita was rescued from abandonment when a local family adopted her, and so in many ways she and Victor come into this novel as strangers.

If In a Glass House was a dark place, Where She Has Gone is, to begin with, suffused with light. We’re in Toronto as the novel opens, and the city is lit with autumn’s “russet and gold.” Victor, too, seems an illuminated soul, able in his late 20s (as he never was before as our narrator) to analyze what he’s feeling, to express emotion, and act on it. He’s an emotional cipher no more.

That’s not to say that Where She Has Gone is in any way blithe or carefree; indeed, “the sun turns bitter” over the territory that Victor and Rita are mapping out together, and the story is as complex, as troubling, as jarring in its implications as the prose is pleasurable in its craft and resonance.

There are two shocks at the heart of this novel and it would benefit nobody to reveal them here. Victor and Rita are both on journeys of discovery, and those journeys eventually lead them back to Valle del Sole. Vittorio, as he is again in his native village, is looking for answers from the past. Who were his parents? Who was Rita’s father? Is what he remembers the way things really were? In the end, he decides that there can be no definitive answers, indeed what makes the past real is “the mute unreachability, the way it beckoned … and could not be touched.”

Novels don’t deliver up a single lesson for easy extraction, and Where She Has Gone is no exception. Suffice to say, there’s much to learn in its inquiry into the evanescent past, much to admire in Ricci’s control as a writer. Though it’s early yet in the season, and though outright gushing is usually seen to be outside this country’s reviewing etiquette, after the journey I’ve been on with Ricci these past few weeks, I’m not holding back. Bring on Gillers, and Governor Generals, and Bookers. Most important, bring on readers willing to run the risk of a deep and lasting involvement.