BOOK REVIEW / 'The Silent Duchess' - Dacia Maraini, trs Dick Kitto & Elspeth Spottiswood: Peter Owen, 14.99.

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A historical novel which deftly avoids falling prey to the tacky trappings of its pantomime counterparts. Set in Sicily in the mid-18th century, it follows the heroine, the silent duchess of the title, from childhood through to middle age. The duchess (full name Marianna Ucria di Campo Spagnolo, Countess of Paruta, Baroness of Bosca Grande, of Fiame Mendola and of Solazzi) finds a resonance with her own thoughts in the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Elegantly rebellious, she subverts the ground-plans laid by patriarchs, and discovers not only the delights of intellectual freedom, but, in early middle age, sexual bliss with a wonderfully unsuitable lover.

Maraini's great skill is that she does not allow the exploration of ideas to take over at the expense of the story, nor the story to obscure the ideas. Perhaps she is writing about herself when one of her characters says: 'I often let myself be overwhelmed by gossip in spite of the horror I have of it. But if one looks really deeply one discovers that it is gossip that really lies at the roots of literature.'