Listen to my Voice, By Susanna Tamaro, trs John Cullen

Baffling questions blight this fascinating novel
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Susanna Tamaro's new novel begins with the uprooting of a walnut tree in a front garden, an event found so traumatic by the narrator, Marta, then a little girl, that it sets the tone for the 20-year-old heroine's book-long hypersensitive ruminations. You can get the flavour from the child's thoughts, a few days after the dying of the tree: "My room was invaded by the cold light of a full moon. The coat stand threw its sinister shadow on the floor. Why must there be a shadow in darkness? What's the point of it, if not to evoke the existence of everything that can't be seized and held?"

Point? Point of a shadow? Richness of description vies continually in this novel with the tendentious shallowness of the metaphysics. Marta wants answers: "What's the relationship between truth and life?" "What life has meaning and what's the meaning of life?" "What do you believe in? Why do you live?" And she finds them: "... it's loving and being loved, not revolution, that's the innermost aspiration of every creature that comes in to the world." "Suppose salvation lies in following the luminous path of truth?"

Tamaro is known mainly, both in her home country and abroad, for the great success of her novel Follow Your Heart, first published in Italy in 1994, which is said to have sold more copies than any other 20th-century Italian book. Listen to my Voice, first published in Italian two years ago, is a sequel. Both novels are epistolary works: the earlier book takes the form of a long letter from Olga, written shortly before her death, to her student granddaughter Marta, in America. The new novel is a letter from that granddaughter to her now deceased grandmother. This technique allows both women to give full scope to their passionate interiority, while providing a platform for Tamaro to insert her own didactic reflections on religion and morality as and when she pleases.

How, I continually asked myself as I read on, can a writer create such vivid characters, such brilliant descriptions of nature, such powerful extended metaphors, and yet help herself to the most pedestrian moralising about genetically-modified crops, Sixties' ideological cul-de-sacs and the evils of abortion? How is it that her characters, whom she makes speak in extended soliloquies, retain a vivid, naturalistic presence?

In truth, Tamaro's new novel is a mess: it careens from one theme to another – from a young woman's search to discover the facts about her unknown parents' lives, to a travelogue of Israeli holy sites, to a passionate questioning of the nature and purpose of human existence – with the directness and intensity of an out-of-control vehicle.

Yet for all its wilful oddity, Listen to my Voice absorbs the reader's attention. You simply have to know how this unique, curious coming-of-age novel will turn out. And if the ending retains the ambiguous qualities of the journey, it is none the worse for that.