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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith


Reading Dominic Smith's new novel, Return to Valetto, is to be transported to Italy. My senses are filled with the pleasures of a foreign place and my mind is absorbed with a mystery that develops early in the novel.  Valetto is an almost completely abandoned town in Umbria where the remaining residents number ten, including the Anglo-Italian Serafino family which consists of three aged sisters who live with their 99-year-old mother in a crumbling villa that is perched, like the town itself, on "a spur of rock in the middle of a valley of canyons" (13).  Though battered by weather and time, "the pale umber walls" (13) contain the untouched secrets of the town's fascist history while in the present, an American man named Hugh Fisher arrives to spend six months doing research. The cottage where he will stay, sitting behind the villa, was the property of his deceased mother, the fourth Serafino sister, and as the place where Hugh came in the summers, it is full of memories from his boyhood.


But there is a squatter in the cottage, a woman named Elissa who claims that Aldo Serafino, the father of the four sisters, a man who disappeared when they were children to join the partisan cause and was never heard from again, deeded it to her family. Must they honor her claim?


The town of Valetto is accessed by a high, narrow footbridge that spans the valley of canyons it overlooks.  Smith creates a thrilling prelude in the novel's opening pages as Hugh walks across this bridge. It gives me, the reader, a chance to view the villa from a distance while I learn more about my first-person narrator.


He introduces himself with this intriguing sentence: "I specialize in abandonment" (4).  It's not meant metaphorically. Hugh is an historian who has published a book on abandoned towns in Italy. Soon I learn that he himself is filled by vacancy. Death took away both his wife and mother in a span of four years, absences he has not quite recovered from.


During the walk across the footbridge, as Hugh moves ever closer, he remembers a recent exchange with his adult daughter, Susan, who takes it upon herself to be the gentle, goading force to dislodge him from grief.  "She wouldn't have wanted this for you," she tells him and even in these early pages, I know that "this" refers to Hugh's habit of being stuck within his losses. In fact, it is the slowness of his halting, fearful progress away from grief that grows my anticipation.


"How do you know what your mother wanted?"


"She told me that I shouldn't let you wallow. That your people were wallowers."


"That does sound like her" (20), Hugh concedes.


With this exchange fresh in his mind, his gaze, while still on the footbridge, rests on the figure of the disrupter, a tall, broad-shouldered woman standing at the door of his cottage, fumbling with the lock.  The juxtaposition makes me wonder, might she be the force to prevent  Hugh's continued wallowing? "The woman had a Tesla coil of brunette hair, and she was wearing olive-colored corduroys and a black angora sweater" (20).


A Tesla coil? Google tells me it's an electrical transformer used to increase voltage. What a strange metaphor. But then I saw the visual I was being guided to consider: the lightening-like strands of hair loosed from the bun, like sparks leaping from a coil. Even at the beginning of the novel, when all I have to go on is the fact of Elissa's presence, I can see that a tesla coil captures her  energetic, contrary nature. Clearly, she will be someone the mild-mannered Hugh will have to reckon with. Will it draw him closer or push him away?


Still approaching the villa, Hugh thinks of his three aunts and mother, all named for flowers: Iris, Violet and Rose are the three Serafino sisters still alive, but Hazel, his mother, was named for a different kind of flower. The hazel blossom opens in the winter, popping out of the bare branches of the hazel tree, sending tiny red shoots out from an orb that will become the hazel nut. More sparks!


As Hugh comes to the end of the bridge, I have the image of two crackling, electrified woman in front of me and though I've been told by Hugh himself that he's attracted to vacancy, I am fond of him already and eager to see him step out of isolation and enter the charged territory both the memories of his mother and the flesh and blood Elissa inhabit. 


In just 17 opening pages, the tensions that will play out over the next 300 are set before me. The story's dimensions are suggested already: I know enough about the setting, the time, the characters, and the problem that, as Hugh steps onto the first cobblestones of Valetto, I know I'm entering a town still haunted by a past Hugh will need to uncover.
Smith, Dominic. Return to Valetto. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.