The holy grail, for me these days, is a high quality but easily entertaining novel. Readable. Dare-I-Say-It, light.
This is all anyone ever wants recommendations for too. I do not get troupes of you coming to me and saying, “What I really want is a challenge. Something technical. Something that will blow my mind with the boundaries of what reading can be. Something that will stretch my heart with a whole new outlook on life.”
They – and I – am saying instead, “Not too tough please. Well written, but not so much that it gets in the way.” Good enough is the new good. And now that I’m on the cusp of having another baby, please do brace yourselves for a decisive shift of the dial into light territory. I’m not going to lie to you, there may even be chick-lit.
For I find true quality-but-light reading is as rare as a snowflake freshly fallen from the left lash of a unicorn. Simple is so often just badly written. Or reasonably written, but without any real heart or drive or message. It passes over you like a scrap of cloth, leaving no trace – you’ll have forgotten it in a month. Such, I fear, is Early One Morning. It shouldn’t be: the igniting episode is the emptying of the Jewish ghetto in Rome in 1943, deporting families to concentration camps and certain death. Amidst this horror, in a sudden spontaneous moment, an Italian woman claims aunthood of a boy about to be taken while his family are led away. The book deals with the consequences of this apparently true incident as they unspool over months and years.
You’ll already see that the book has its share of weighty subject matter – and there’s Nazi evasion, hunger, struggle, addiction, epilepsy, and trauma to layer on top of that. But somehow the novel never reached beyond the picture-postcard view of Italy and the war that we’re all so familiar with. It felt (like it is, the afterword reveals) like a painting by a self-confessed Rome/Italy enthusiast who fell in love with the country as a teenager. The narrator of a good section of the novel is an impressionable teenager, and maybe that doesn’t help in the effort to make this novel more than a slightly sentimentalised view of a glamorous land even as it struggles through the worst of times. It totally fails to get the gritty texture and authenticity of the much-praised Elena Ferrante, for example (who as you know I didn’t love, but whose ability to capture mid-twentieth-century Italy has become legendary.) This sounds very harsh but the fact is, it is second-rate. The traumatised silence of little Daniele means that we never get under the skin of this pivotal character, leaving us on the outside of the emotional heart of the novel in the hands of the frustrated Chiara who never really leaps off the page.
So Early One Morning failed on my quest for quality light entertainment. It’s a tough brief – after all, there’s misery lit all over the shop if that’s your bag (Hello, A Little Life.) But it’s an ongoing search, and I’m confident I’ll bring you better. Onwards and upwards.