The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston
Back in 2009 the director Carol Morley made a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who lay dead in her apartment for a month before anyone discovered her. Morley explored how a woman who had had friends, a good job, a life, could somehow slip through the cracks and at less than forty years of age find themselves dying without anyone noticing they were gone.
There’s nothing in the plot or characters of The Disappearance of Signora Giulia that brings Joyce Vincent’s story to mind, and referencing Joyce Vincent is in no way a spoiler for anything in this book. The connection is of mood: a haunting sense that something important has happened but without knowing exactly what or how; of having questions to which there may never be an answer.
It’s 1955, Northern Italy. Giulia is a beautiful woman married to a much older man, the respected lawyer Esengrini. Every Thursday morning she takes the train to Milan to visit their daughter. One Thursday she doesn’t arrive. Back at home there are signs of a robbery, and there’s no evidence she ever even got on the train. She’s vanished.
Esengrini asks Commissario Sciancalepre to look into the case. Both men suspect the visits to the daughter may have been cover to an affair, but did Giulia run away or did something happen to her?
‘Sciancalepre, you’re a southerner and can understand certain things better than I can. I can’t say that I’m not up to it, but I’m definitely getting there. In recent years, our twenty-year age difference has really created a gap between my wife and me. Did you notice that even though our rooms are next to each other, they’re separate? It’s been like that for more than a year. Signora Giulia wants nothing more to do with me in bed. She says that for me, bed is a branch of the office: I read trial proceedings, take notes and look through legal journals until late. I’m sixty, you know, and I’m like any other sixty-year-old man. But my wife is only thirty-eight, to be exact…’
It doesn’t take long for Sciancalepre to find evidence of adultery, a possibly criminal matter in post-Fascist Italy. The clues however soon dry up and the case becomes unsolved. Years pass, with the question of what happened to Signora Giulia nagging at Sciancalepre. Eventually Esengrini and Giulia’s daughter grows up and comes into her trust fund and possession of the house where Giulia was last seen, which brings new evidence into light and means Sciancalepre may be able to solve the greatest mystery of his career after all.
Sciancalepre makes a likable protagonist. He’s intelligent and sympathetic, but professionally sceptical and he’s quite aware that Esengrini might only have initiated the investigation in order to divert suspicion from the possibility of his own guilt. Better yet however, Sciancalepre is thoroughly Italian:
They started their search in the office. At twelve-thirty the operation was suspended for lunch. Sciancalepre couldn’t do without his pasta,
This is a slim novel, just 120 pages or so, and yet it has enough twists for a book easily twice its size. I guessed around the three-quarters mark who must have done it, and sure enough Sciancalepre duly arrested them, but the novel doesn’t stop there and more complex questions of proof and guilt arrive undermining both my and his certainty. The novel becomes slippery and truth elusive.
Disappearance partly draws on the cosy crime and locked room mystery genres (there’s no locked room here, but there is a puzzle about how exactly Signora Giulia disappeared on that otherwise ordinary Thursday morning). Neither are genres I care for, and I’m not therefore a particularly good reader for this book. Even so, I enjoyed it and I think it makes an interesting addition to the Pushkin Vertigo lineup as it’s ultimately a disquieting and unexpected read.
Beyond that, it’s hard to say much without spoiling it for others (which hopefully the small discussion I’ve had here won’t do). It’s short and cleanly written and translated and if you’re anything at all like me it’ll still trouble you after you’ve turned the final page. What more could one really ask for?
I was sold this by reviews from David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book Blog, here; and from Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations, here.
18 responses to “What we won’t do to hang on to a relationship that’s slipping away from us, an image of fading love.”
The Pushkin Vertigo titles are great and this sounds up to the mark. I like the fact that it undermines its conclusion – straight onto the wishlist! 🙂
It sounds great, Max – just what I’ve come to expect from the Pushkin Vertigo series. I have a copy on the shelves at home so it’ll be interesting to see how I find it. Great intro to your review by the way. Dreams of a Life is one of the most haunting documentaries I’ve seen in recent years, a truly heartbreaking story.
I wondered if you’d seen Dreams of a Life Jacqui. It is both haunting and heartbreaking. I’ll be fascinated to see your thoughts.
Kaggsy, I think you might like this, and if you don’t it’s short so either way it’s a winner!
Thanks for the mention, Max. I still think about this one. I just finished The Murdered Banker from the series and wasn’t that keen.
I haven’t seen your review of that, but I’m a bit behind. They can’t all be winners though.
Yes, I saw it at the cinema when it was released a few Christmases ago. Pretty unforgettable, isn’t it? Have you seen Morley’s latest film, The Falling. I wasn’t that keen on it to be honest even though I like her as a filmmaker. It was a preview screening at the LFF and she was there along with several members of the cast. Her enthusiasm was so infectious, but unfortunately I didn’t particularly take to the film itself!
I mostly liked it, except the end which I thought too neat. To be honest the subplots about the main character’s home life I thought were unnecessary – the events didn’t need explanation and it would have been a better film without such. Other than that though I liked it and I thought it well acted and well filmed (that’s not quite the right term, but it will do).
Dreams of a Life, you say? I’ll have to check that out. I’ve heard of a couple of cases like that, although usually the people involved are older. And I do like a slippery, elusive book!
I suspect I’m out on a limb with The Falling as the critical response was very positive. The two girls were very good, especially Maisie Williams. It was the style/direction that troubled me. I just found it too fragmented
I pressed ‘send’ too quickly there. I was about to add:
My problem, I suspect. It’s a pity because I really wanted to like it.
I do love the Pushkin Vertigo books, and this one looks wonderful, thanks for the great (and spoiler-free) review
It’s very good Marina, but terribly sad too.
Jacqui, I think it had a bit too much in it, though I did like it. Frankly the whole Maisie Williams home plotline could have been dropped and I think it would have made for a stronger film.
Shoshi, then you should love this. If you read it do let me know how you get on.
Strangely, this is not available in French. Well, strange for Italian fiction.
It sounds really great.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as really great. It’s good, but I’m not sure I’d say great. You could easily read it in the English though, it’s very cleanly written and I don’t think would be at all a challenge for you.
I read this over the weekend (just for a break, not for reviewing) and loved it. It’s my favourite of the three Puskin Vertigos I’ve tried so far. At times it reminded me of some of Leonardo Sciascia’s fiction, especially at one point where Esengrini talks about not trusting the law. ‘Justice is a machine with neither heart nor intelligence: it acts as instructed. And the instruction is determined by the evidence.’ Sciascia’s work is more political – but still, I couldn’t help thinking about the comparison. Anyway, great review – that ending is rather intriguing, isn’t it?
That line is one a lawyer might write. Laypeople tend to confuse law with justice, but law is really about process with justice being a desired outcome from that process (where relevant – if the issue is one of say allocation of ground condition risk in a building contract justice isn’t necessarily a particularly relevant factor – it’s just risk allocation and pricing).
The ending is indeed intriguing. For some I suspect infuriating.
Yes, very much the type of angle a lawyer might develop. Also reminds me of some of the reflections in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach novellas and Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (Sacheri worked in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s). I agree, the rules of law and the notion of justice are two different things.
The ending would frustrate some readers that’s for sure. One of the guys in my book group enjoys crime fiction, but I suspect he might feel a little cheated by the conclusion in this one.
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