Nostalgia, By Jonathan Buckley

 

Get beyond the vaguer-than-vague title and this is some book: a minor-key masterpiece of restraint, invention and the fine art of keeping expectations deliberately low, then elegantly surpassing them. Nostalgia is set in the fictitious Tuscany town of Castelluccio, home to expat British painter Gideon Westfall, a successful but defiantly unfashionable exponent of neo-Neo-Classicism .

Gideon's peaceful existence with his assistant Robert is disrupted when an unexpected visitor to his studio turns out to be his niece, Claire, come to investigate this last outpost of her family now that her parents are dead. The old man and no-longer-young woman circle each other with extreme wariness – he as eccentric as artists of his type are supposed to be, she circumspect to the point of frostiness. Buckley delineates their developing acquaintanceship with care.

Dropped in between these scenes, and others featuring Robert, Robert's Italian girlfriend, Teresa, and various other characters, are many other, very much non-novelistic sections. These flood the reader with details of local history and folklore, the back-stories of walk-on characters, the provenance of Gideon's paintings, the natural history of the bats, owls and lizards that flit into view.

It's a performance of authorial ingenuity and nerve, for what reader would seriously want to know, in such depth, the ins and outs of a made-up town, its inhabitants and buildings. While the novel proper is never less (or more) than undemonstrative, these sections aspire to the blankness of a perfectly serviceable guide book. They are often scrupulously dull: "A church existed in Castelluccio prior to the 10th century, when the town was destroyed by marauding Hungarians…" You plough on, thinking, why am I reading this?

Well, you are reading it because it is slowly, surreptitiously, building a portrait of a place as complete as any far-flung cosmos in a science- fiction space opera, and of an intricate trio of characters as intimately knowable and unknowable as any in contemporary fiction. Frankly, if you are holidaying in Italy this summer, I'd pack this instead of, not as well as, your Rough Guide.

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