Early One Morning, Virginia Baily’s second novel, is a powerful tale of loss and love in Rome. Always a little leery of books about Italy in general, and somewhat underwhelmed by the title, I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It is a beautifully written and poignant story.
Set across two timelines riven with flashbacks, Early One Morning starts in 1943 as the Jewish ghetto in Rome is liquidated, its inhabitants carted away to we all know where. Chiara Ravello catches the eye of a woman in the line of deportees. The woman pushes her son towards Chiara, and Chiara claims the boy. The first timeline follows Chiara attempting to build a relationship with the boy, Daniele, and struggling to survive through the war without discovery. Also the guardian of her sister Cecilia, who is implied to have sustained brain injuries from her epileptic seizures, Chiara takes her small family to her grandmother’s house in the country, where they hope to last out the winter.
In 1973, Chiara is estranged from Daniele and lives alone in an apartment cramped with memories and history. She is starting to suffer the decline of old age, and attempting to quit smoking. Meanwhile, in Cardiff, young Maria discovers to her horror that the man she thought was her father is not. In fact she is the product of a brief affair her unwed mother had in Rome with Daniele Levi. Maria contacts Chiara, believing her to be no more than Daniele’s former landlady, and determines to travel to Rome to uncover her Italian identity. Chiara is forced to face up to the past.
There is a lot to enjoy in this novel. There are vivid descriptions and Baily precisely tweaks the heart strings without sentimentalism. In Daniele, she destroys the myth of the perfect survivor as his retched history is gradually revealed. Chiara has sins of her own to confess. Maria shows shades of being her father’s child as she lashes out against her parents for concealing the truth from her.
I felt some of the symbolism used in the piece — smoking cigarettes as self-destruction; the apartment being tidied of the past — was a bit too obvious. However, the story itself is quite subtle, with big emotional changes happening in the background. Perhaps I just forgot to turn my analysis brain off.
Early One Morning is a mostly well constructed tale about two characters discovering themselves in Daniele’s long shadow. It is told with humour, and grace, and the odd Roman Holiday reference. It is spectacularly well researched and generally avoids romanticising Italy and Rome, but grounds it in reality. For this last point at least, it has my eternal gratitude.