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BOOK REVIEW / No gentleman in Verona: 'Isolina' - Dacia Maraini; trs Sian Williams: Peter Owen, 14.99 pounds

IN 1900, two Veronese washerwomen dragged a heavy bundle out of the river Adige. When opened, it was found to contain six pieces of human flesh. Subsequently, other parts of the bloody jigsaw were retrieved, including the remains of a pregnancy and a piece of skirt containing a shopping list that identified the victim: a 19- year-old called Isolina Canuti. It was another year before the head turned up.

Isolina's officer-lover Trivulzio was arrested, but never charged with the murder. However, a left-wing newspaper, Verona del Popolo, took up the case, and repeatedly accused Trivulzio of the murder until he was driven to sue the editor for libel.

Eighty years on, Dacia Maraini has conducted her own investigation. Her sources are the newspapers of the time, interviews with surviving relatives of Isolina and Trivulzio (they seem to be amazingly long-lived), and the documentation of the libel suit. But Isolina's real self cannot be pieced together. Trivulzio described her as 'scorpion, cow, little monkey', the neighbours as 'a short, hunchbacked, ugly thing'. Yet she wore bright clothes and an embroidered bodice, and she had two lovers. She liked sweet mustard and once sold her mother's ring to make zabaglione for her lover. Her father said that she 'had the devil in her'. Her sister was afraid of her.

One cannot help wondering if Dacia Maraini should have used the freedom of the novel form to reconstruct her elusive subject further. All she can reassemble is the process by which a society protects itself from messy inconveniences such as Isolina. Trivulzio won his libel suit because the word of an officer and a gentleman was considered to weigh far more than that of proletarians, serving women, midwives who carried out abortions. Isolina had been no better than she should be - we know the refrain. Maraini makes good use of the transcripts, letting the witnesses and interrogators speak for themselves (though she adds her own partisan interpretations: it is not clear, for example, why she states so conclusively that Trivulzio was not Isolina's murderer.)

But perhaps it is right that Isolina should remain silent, defined by her absence. The facts double as powerful, uncomfortable metaphors. Women are no more than meat: the documents of their history are usually missing.