Just one little lie

FOLLOW YOUR HEART by Susanna Tamaro trs Avril Bardoni, Secker pounds 10
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THIS novel was last year's publishing phenomenon in Italy, dominating the bestseller lists for six unbroken months. Finally, last October, the Pope and Umberto Eco joined forces to topple Tamaro, and it looked like it was all over bar the royalties for this gamine 37 year-old novelist from Trieste.

But in February Tamaro snatched back the lead. To date, the book has sold nearly one and a half million copies, been translated into 18 languages, and made the fortune of Tamaro's publishers, Baldini & Castoldi. It has also focused media interest on the reclusive author. Who is this slip of a woman who looks as if she never grew up? "A character straight out of the puppet theatre," decided Federico Fellini in 1991, exulted by Tamaro's previous book, a collection of short stories about disturbed and disturbing children. "She is a grown woman who looks like a 12-year-old, an anorexic who goes in for karate".

The reason for all the fuss is clear right from the opening sentences of Follow your Heart. Tamaro makes her narrator an old, frail woman, and casts the story as a series of letters destined for the old lady's wayward granddaughter in America, which are never actually sent. Grandmothers are not normally the stuff of literary blockbusters, but the old lady's voice is so convincing and passionate, the generational tragedy she has to tell so involved and involving, that the gamble pays off.

The unnamed grandmother is a woman who does not like to interfere. She did not interfere with her daughter when she went off on a sad, rebellious course which ended in self-destruction, and she does not interfere with her daughter's daughter - who became, with the collapse of the middle term, her own daughter - when the latter packs her bags and heads off for America. But the old lady's instinct for self-effacement conceals a stubborn strength of mind and character. One brief affair was her only open rebellion against the slow death she felt society had imposed on her: this is enough to set the story's moral wheels in motion. The tyranny of society is replaced by the tyranny of guilt: "Since the day I was born I have only told one lie," she writes. "But with that lie I managed to destroy three lives."

There is something of Greek tragedy in the elemental building blocks with which Tamaro plays: blood ties, guilt, predestination, blind passion and blind retribution. She records two of the narrator's childhood memories: her father slaps her face when she sings at the dinner table, and tells her a favourite dog has died "because he was tired of your pranks".

Tamaro has a gift for strong scenes motivated by strong feelings, told in the simplest possible language. But her finishing sometimes lets her down. The narrator's fearful, unannounced visit to her daughter in the latter's seedy university lodgings is a three-page tour de force which ends limply with the observation: "your whole life and that of those close to you can hang upon your choice between continuing along a straight road and taking a side turning".

Rather obvious, really, after such a wrenching scene. This is the one weakness of Tamaro's novel: her (or her grandmother's) itch to moralise, to draw a lesson from every tree communed with, cake baked, or book read. If you are spoiling for a fight, frequent incipits of the "I once read in a book of Indian philosophy..." variety will certainly jar - they sound like Hermann Hesse trying to make ends meet by writing Christmas cracker mottoes. But Tamaro's assured handling of character and plot commands the benefit of the doubt. If you are in the mood to be moved by a deceptively simple tale, Follow your Heart will do the trick.