Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini, trans. Silvester Mazzarella

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The Independent Culture

Dacia Maraini, now 74, is one of the best-known Italian writers of the past 50 years. But is her Train to Budapest one more Holocaust story? Not at all: this is a well-written book with a gripping plot, full of suspense and analysis of personal stories. The novel is set in post-war Europe, in 1956. A 26-year-old journalist – Amara Sironi, a Florentine shoemaker's daughter – sets out on a journey to Auschwitz.

Commissioned to write a series of articles, she ends up in Budapest, in the middle of the Hungarian revolution: a bloodbath which becomes a Russian victory over the forces of democracy. Amara decides to recreate the journey of her Jewish childhood friend Emanuele Orenstein from Rifredi in Tuscany to Vienna, Lodz, and most probably on to Auschwitz. On the long train journey, she meets Hans, a half-Jewish Austrian who acts as a surrogate father at weddings for orphaned brides, and the gentle Hovath, a librarian from Budapest, whose main ambition is to publish soldiers' letters from the Russian front.

Both men accompany Amara to Budapest. This trio, on Amara's initiative, contact several Orensteins: the old painter Theodor, the book-binder Elisabeth, the conscientious Dorothea Morgan, with her perpetual sense of guilt towards the victims of the Holocaust, and many others, all of whom share their sufferings with the reader.

None of these stories is melodramatic: they are told with realistic historic details. So despite our familiarity with this period, the author brings insight and freshness. Amara is an archetypal heroine, a young, independent woman who leads the reader through this maze. It is a familiar pattern in Maraini's fiction: fascinating characterisation in a plot that unfolds rapidly and with unexpected turns.

Maraini's novel combines a sense of momentous events with deep humanity; the characters are rocked by events that break relationships and family ties. History intersects with individual lives and stories, disrupting their smooth flow. Forgotten feelings resurface when stirred up by a third party's quest for reconciliation with the past. In Amara's case, her nostalgia and love for Emanuele is the link to her childhood war experience - a bizarre mixture of love and terror which will haunt her forever and is now compounded by her adult sense of powerlessness in the face of the Hungarian revolution, and the subsequent loss of life.

Maraini's list of fiction is impressive: 16 novels, over 20 plays, and a total of over 60 works. (The Age of Discontent, Woman at War, Voices, The Silent Duchess, Bagheria, The Violin and Isolina are all novels published by Arcadia in the UK.) Maraini's women protagonists are never frightened by the truth and risk their lives to pin it down for themselves and for future generations. Her story-telling, in which relationships are intimately described, opposites reconciled and lost feelings rediscovered, is fiction at its best.

Her own life is part of this thread. She was born into one of the best-known aristocratic families in Sicily; her 97-year-old mother is the Princess Alliata di Salaparuta. Her family rejected the obligations of the nobility, and seven-year-old Maraini spent three years in a concentration camp in Japan because her parents refused to sign up to the fascist Saló Republic created by Mussolini. Maraini recalls the horrors of the camp with daily starvation and long illnesses, never regretting her parents' courageous decision. "You could not possibly have signed that agreement," said the author this month in London, "it would have meant condoning racism at its worst: impossible!" I would not be surprised if her next novel were set in contemporary Italy – a country difficult and divided enough to be portrayed in dozens of fictions.