A Family Writ Large: Genni Gunn’s Solitaria

In the world of books, there’s nothing more satisfying than a novel that you can’t put down. Genni Gunn’s novel Solitaria (the recluse) is a gripping and beautifully written work that deserves to be a bestseller.  Gunn is a Canadian writer born in Trieste, Italy and the author of eight books. For reasons I can’t explain — or excuse — she’s managed to evade my notice.  It’s fortunate that awards juries aren’t quite as dozy as this reviewer. The novel was selected for the 2011 Giller Prize longlist.

Solitaria is Gunn’s third novel, and it’s built of an admirable combination of depth, language, and compelling storytelling. It concerns the discovery of the body of Vito, eldest brother in a large Italian family, a man murdered in the 1950s and thought by his siblings (and his abandoned wife, Teresa) to be living in Argentina.  It’s clear that contact with Vito was not a priority for his brothers and sisters, but neither did they draw close to big sister Piera, who narrates much of this story. Seen by her siblings as bossy, domineering and sharp-tongued, she nonetheless eased the family out of poverty by a marriage of convenience to a wealthy man. Her sole confidant is her nephew David, a professor in Canada who spent summers with his aunt in Italy while his mother Clarissa — Piera’s sister and a world-renowned opera singer — traveled the globe.  He feels close to his aunt, who responds to the discovery of her brother Vito’s body by taking to her bed and refusing to speak to the family members who’ve gathered for the funeral.

The family saga unfolds as Piera shares a cache of old photos — and well-worn memories — with her nephew David. As we learn about the impoverished life of Piera’s family during the Second World War, we wonder whose version of events is true: Piera’s view of herself as long-suffering and generous, or her siblings contention that she’s brought them nothing but misery. It’s this tension — and the seamless shifts in point of view — that propel the story along. Yet delusions abound in this family, and the first to shed them will be the one to confront the secret of Vito’s murder. (I’m happy to report that my whodunit hunches proved wrong).

Solitaria rushes toward its ending at a fast clip, but it does so with depth.  A metaphor of railway tracks and travel runs through this book; through it, we understand the peripatetic family whose father worked for the railroad, the scattering of siblings across continents, and David’s struggle to situate himself in the world. The story hints at the many dimensions of identity and belonging, from the personal and familial to the social and cultural.

In reviewing Solitaria, I should admit my bias; I’m of Italian descent, and I find that family passions writ large in the Mediterranean style — tales of honour and personal sacrifice, love and vengeance, retaliation and even redemption — are irresistible. In this context, I’m reminded of the novel’s power to show us that, whatever the particulars of our cultural background, we are not strangers to the human condition and we are not alone in the world. That said, you don’t have to be Italian to enjoy this reflective page-turner. It’s a wonderful, engrossing read.

Solitaria by Genni Gunn was published in Winnipeg by Signature Editions in 2010.

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