Valerio Varesi, River of Shadows (Il fiume delle nebbie), translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell (London: Maclehose Press 2011 ). An atmospheric crime novel set against the backdrop of flooding in the Po Valley, and introducing Commissario Soneri 3.5 stars
Opening sentence: A steady downpour descended from the skies.
Given that Italy is currently in the headlines courtesy of Berlusconi’s imminent resignation, it seems fitting to review an Italian crime novel (I also happened upon an Inspector Zen novel in a charity shop today, so this week has become a bit of an Italian affair).
Valerio Varesi’s River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger, and in most respects, is an enjoyable, quality read. The novel is set in the Po Valley of northern Italy, and offers a fascinating insight into the boatmen’s communities that work the Po river (if your knowledge of geography is as scanty as mine see here for further context; there’s also a helpful little map at the front of the book).
The novel has a tremendous sense of place, as its evocative cover suggests. The opening chapter describes the drama of the river’s rising floodwaters after four days of rain, and the strange disappearance of an experienced, but unpopular boatman named Anteo Tonna. When another man with the same surname falls from a window of the local hospital, Commissario Soneri is determined to establish a connection between the two, and the motivation for what he believes is a double murder. However, he soon comes up against the silence of the tightknit community of boatmen, led by the communist Barigazzi, who are unwilling to discuss their complex relationship with the missing man, one compromised by the murky politics of the fascist past.
I loved the atmospheric feel of this novel, the detail provided about life on the water, and the way the symbolism of the river was woven into the crime narrative (the rising floodwaters coincide with the violent deaths of the Tonnas, while the falling waters help to reveal the truth behind the case). Commissario Soneri is an astute and engaging investigative figure, and his interviews with various intriguing river dwellers, such as ‘Maria of the sands’, are nicely portrayed.
But there was one element of the novel I found highly irritating, namely the characterisation of Soneri’s girlfriend Angela, a one-dimensional, sex-mad fantasy figure who is averse to any kind of conventional commitment. Aside from being laughable, her presence undercuts the depiction of the otherwise professional Commissario. For example, I find it hard to believe that a policeman so committed to solving the case would consent to using a crime scene for an erotic rendevouz!
Readers of my previous posts will know that I’ve taken exception to the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction before (see my comments on Ingrid in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog). There does seem to be a pattern emerging, and I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of highly stereotyped representations of women are characteristic of Italian crime fiction in a way that they are not, say, for most Scandinavian crime novels. My impression is that male Italian crime writers tend to write for a male audience that expects its crime fiction to have an erotic dimension. However, in my view the latter doesn’t do the central crime narrative any favours (and I say this not out of primness, but because it’s so badly done!).
I will reserve judgement until I have read some further examples of Italian crime, and am actively on the lookout for a novel that proves my theory wrong. If anyone can point me in its direction I would be very grateful…
Mrs. Peabody awards River of Shadows an atmospheric 3.5 stars (one star deducted for its tedious representation of women).