Stephen Hale – Sigi and the Italian Girl (2018)
The first novel by Manchester-based writer Stephen Hale transports us to the small hillside Italian village of Madonna del Bosco.
Though fictional – or perhaps a composite of real places – it’s grounded in Hale’s own experiences of living and working in Italy. This sensual novel displays a deep knowledge of the region’s landscape and culture and a clear affection for ways of life in rural Italy.
Hale also takes us back in time. Firstly, to 1944, when Madonna del Bosco is occupied by German soldiers – the story is told from the viewpoint of the titular Sigi, a naïve nineteen-year-old army officer – and secondly to 2010, when we’re introduced to his grandson, British single dad Ben, who has his own story to tell.
The characters speak in impressively polyglot voices, and the narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present.
The wartime story is far removed from the frontline. Instead of fighting, we’re presented with bureaucracy and boredom. This war plays out in everyday life, and through small acts of resistance, rather than through direct action.
In the contemporary story, meanwhile, recently widowed Ben has relocated from London in search of a better life for him and his young son, also named Sigi.
Both stories share a sense of being away from home – or finding a home – and navigating the strangeness of a new culture. The importance of friendship comes across strongly, and finding commonality across cultural and generational distances; Hale deals adeptly with memory and its transmission. Both men – grandfather and grandson – fall in love in Madonna del Bosco, each relationship encountering its own challenges, although the outcomes are very different.
Despite its references to Italian neorealism, Sigi and the Italian Girl avoids cliché and sentimentality. Although the ending to old Sigi’s story comes as no particular surprise – I felt myself willing it to end differently – it leaves us to form our own conclusions about the characters’ motivations. The book suggests that there’s no such thing as clear cut goodies or baddies, or rigid ethical and moral codes. Hale passes no judgement on the characters: we are invited to make up our own minds. Sigi and the Italian Girl makes the case that most of us are neither heroic nor cowardly, but somewhere in between.
– Natalie Bradbury