Truth and lies, shame and honour, a death penalty and misguided revenge, and an entire island’s future in the balance . . . The interwoven elements of this story make for a heady mix, yet it is all kept under control in a sad story about a girl who is the victim of her social circumstances and the prevailing morals of her time.
Valeria Peretti’s family have very little: a house, a patch of land, and their self-respect. Respect or ‘honour’ is the only thing a poor family can boast in this harsh Corsican environment; it is Valeria’s mother’s single proud possession. This reputation, and the fact that Valeria is tall, strong and healthy, leads to her being chosen as a second wife by a wealthy widower. The loss of it, when after her husband’s early death Valeria seeks a few moments passion with an impossibly charismatic shepherd, means her death. A neighbour accuses Valeria of poisoning her husband (Valeria was giving him herbal infusions to help his stomach pains); the village elders learn of her affair with the shepherd, if one can even call it that, and Valeria is condemned to die – by poison. Her mother insists on giving her the fatal potion. Saying what happens next would be an unforgivable spoiler, suffice it to say Valeria escapes to Marseilles, a vast, heartless city, where she enters another desperate struggle for survival – and the life of her unborn child.
This should have been a gripping tale, but if I wasn't gripped quite as much as I could have been it is because despite the emotional intensity of Valeria’s tale and the tensions on the island the narrative is rather one-paced. As with her previous novel about Corsica the author’s passion for her subject is evident; the description of the island is beautiful, the account of Valeria’s hard life is convincing, but dialogue lacks natural rhythm and spontaneity, and a few too many passages tell the reader what to think. This makes it an easier, more accessible read, but it meant that while I had a great deal of sympathy for Valeria I could not truly engage in her plight or rejoice in her rescue.
Nevertheless, this is a good story, and well worth reading – especially if you are familiar with Mediterranean islands or its coastline. As Couchman points out in her Author’s Note, the condemnation of Valeria by the town elders is based on a recorded event. What happens in 18th century Corsica may seem extreme by modern standards, but the concept of respectability and the social constraints placed on young women – right into the 20th century – are spot on. It is also, in the best historical novel tradition, a meaningful way of learning more about Corsica’s troubled history.
© J.G Harlond
click here to return to home page 'Bookshelf' then scroll down for more items of interest