OUT NOW: Sigi and the Italian Girl – Stephen Hale
“A poignant and vibrant exploration of
love, betrayal, remorse and joy.”
“Thoughtful, entertaining and moving exploration of how war, occupation and repression can devastate the beauty of humanity and nature. And how time, forgiveness and even new love can only partly redeem us in the end.” – David Lodly
During one of Europe’s darkest hours, the brutal occupation of Fascist Italy in 1944-5, nineteen-year-old Siegfried ‘Sigi’ Brandt is stationed with the German army in the spectacularly remote village of Madonna del Bosco, far from the front line of battle. Sigi falls for alluring local beauty Tiziana, a descendant of witches. Secretive about her family’s affiliations, wary of accusations of collaboration, Tiziana meets Sigi furtively in the old coven’s den up on the hillside. From the mountains, as she casts her seductive spell on the German boy, the Resistance threatens the tiny garrison and the villagers must make painful choices.
65 years later, Sigi’s English grandson, single-dad Ben, abandons London with his five-year-old son to live the simple life in the same quaint village, now a hippy haven. Old Siegfried, aged and infirm, arrives from Hamburg to visit his family and to revisit his past. Whilst wooing his own Italian girl – feisty, childless, unhappily married Antonella – under sunny skies, Ben unearths a disturbing secret about his grandfather’s wartime romance.
“With its brave cast of female characters and its moving tale of love and war, this family saga – about mothers and their sons, grandfathers and their grandsons, lovers and their adultery – will appeal broadly. Readers of literary fiction will enjoy the novel’s sensual imagery, its time-shifting chronology and its cunning placement of the motifs which link the inter-woven tales. Connoisseurs of historical fiction will be hooked by its suspenseful and authentically drawn treatment of oppression and resistance. Devotees of literary romance will take pleasure in the joys, and suffer the pains, of the book’s two paramours, Sigi and Benjamin: grandfather and grandson, brought together by a shared passion, each for his own Italian girl. Armchair travellers can dream of sunny Italian valleys and quaint medieval villages. And bicycling aficionados can admire the ingenious way in which their noble sport is integrated into the story…” Dott. Giorgio Ferrarese, Perugia, Italy
About the Author
Stephen Hale first fell in love with Italy when he visited the country on a poverty-stricken Inter-Rail trip in the early 1980s. Born under iron-grey clouds in the post-industrial northern English town of St Helens, he spent his childhood in a largely futile search for vitamin D and bright colour, eventually discovered in abundance under sunny Italian skies. Always a keen student of Italian language and history, he made a home for many years in a remote and picturesque mountain village, not so unlike the fictional villages portrayed in his novel. He has written widely on aspects of Italian culture – design, film, architecture – for magazines and newspapers. He has also written screenplays and short stories. Sigi and the Italian Girl is his first novel.
Stephen studied English Literature at the University of Wales and Film at Manchester. Originally a journalist, he then taught English, Film and Writing in Manchester schools and colleges. He contributes regularly, both as sub-editor and writer, to the Manchester magazine, The Modernist, a quarterly, award-winning periodical on matters of architecture and design. Stephen now lives in Chorlton, Manchester and teaches Creative Writing and Italian at Priestley College, Warrington. He enjoys European cinema, food and wine, English beer and riding his bicycle. His favourite cocktail is the Negroni.
The initial idea for ‘Sigi’ came while cycling on the idyllic ‘pista ciclabile’ along the Italian Riviera between Sanremo and Imperia. He had discovered an abandoned home in the ‘centro storico’ of his adopted village, its roofless ground floor reclaimed by croaking frogs and dancing butterflies. Further investigation revealed a disturbing secret dating back to the period of the Nazi Occupation. This buried ‘dark heart’ of Italy contrasted starkly with the laid-back ‘dolce vita’ he had come to know and love, a paradox which blossomed into his complex, time-shifting story.
“There are heavy issues to handle, but Hale leavens the spirit by adding frequent laugh-out-loud doses of humour… Comparisons may be made of Louis de Bernières’ Corelli’s Mandolin, as well Mal Peet’s gut-wrenching Tamar, but Hale’s voice is distinctively his own, especially when imbuing us with the atmosphere of wartime and contemporary Liguria – its mountains, forests, trysting places and killing grounds. Sigi and the Italian Girl is a captivating ride, by motorbike, bicycle and army truck, to a superbly-crafted conclusion.” – Amazon Customer
Back in London Sigi and I could be out and about for hours without bumping into a single soul we knew: tens of thousands of strangers. Here in Madonna del Bosco the opposite is true. Italians spend most of their time outdoors. They love the crowd, the marketplace, the forum. They live in the café and in the piazza. They privilege the bee-hive over the bee. Everything is communicated. Emotions are externalised. They don’t do tortured privacy. There’s no need for psychiatrists here.
Look! Serenading us with the Sempre Libera aria from Verdi’s La Traviata, our amiable neighbour Renaldo is reversing his Ape, loaded with foraged firewood, up a cobbled alleyway. The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheeler scooter with miniature truck attached, is the only vehicle which will do on these steep lanes and is named after the droning bee its tiny engine mimics. First produced in 1947, Suzanna has told me its story – this was the lovably humble vehicle used by thousands of tiny family businesses to help rebuild a broken Italy after the war. Renaldo keeps an orta – an allotment – up on the hillside and his olives, grapes, peaches and beans maintain him in comfortable adequacy. And look! On their bench, by the street-corner shrine to the Madonna and Child, sit Elena and Maria, two friends in their late, late nineties. The Ligurian diet, cucina povera, all fish and vegetables and olive oil, keeps the natives alive forever. They’re relaxing their worn-out legs, reminiscing about the good old days, about the 1950s, before the German hippies arrived, before their own kids abandoned this crumbling village to live in modern condominiums down at the seaside. And look! There’s Enrico the Carpenter, my new drinking pal, his hair greying prematurely over a miniature goatee, unwinding, after a day’s hammering and sawing, outside Trattoria da Giovanni with his bitter aperitivo and a plate of antipasti – artichoke hearts, courgette flowers in batter, tiny roast sausages – proudly contemplating his colossal Italian motorcycle parked on the road. And look! Wolfish Mayor Fausto, the village Godfather, in his Milan suit and flashy sunglasses, gossiping with his brother, Andrea the Butcher, about the wholesale price of meat; the Cipolla clan own the village’s restaurant and hotel and have ruled the roost here for centuries. And look! Gabriella the Witch! Trudging down Via Grande after her daily woodland ramble, carrying a wicker basket full of wild herbs, resting at the bridge to feed the colony of geese who’ve settled on the river: Mother Goose fiercely shields her brood, while her careless male companions devour the stale bread Gabriella chucks in for them. No relaxation of gender roles in this Italian family.
Madonna del Bosco is an alfresco stage-set for a comic opera: pedestrianised Via Grande for the stirring choral numbers; overhanging balconies on which to site the impassioned divas for their sweet arias; a ready-made backdrop of Hansel and Gretel cottages and wood-smoke chimneys. And this unchanged cast, these perennial players, performing daily with that Italian gaiety on which the curtain never comes down and which no visitor from the North can ever fail to notice.
Suzanna’s right. It is good for you here.
Michele de Leon
This time travelling novel was a complete page turner. I finished it in five days so eager was I to find out what happens to all the main characters. There were fine turns of lyrical prose and brush strokes of description which brought a sense of time and place vividly alive. Highly recommended.
Thanks for your comments, Michele. Delighted to learn you enjoyed the book so much.
Enjoyed the book immensely. Although l'm not a lover of stories that leap frpm one era to another....l found myself eagerly awaiting each page . It's a beautiful story and the authors knowledge and love of all things Italian shines through. Left me wanting to know much more of the characters former lives.....especially Sizanna.
So pleased to hear you loved Stephen's book, Marie. Personally, I did quite enjoy the time-shifts and found this story totally gripping.