By Elise ValmorbidaFictionFaber and Faber

The Madonna of the Mountains

1923.

Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk. 

Her father has gone to find her a husband. He’s taken his mule, a photograph and a pack of food: home-made sopressa sausage, cold polenta, a little flask of wine – no need to take water – the world is full of water.

There are no eligible men in this valley or the next one, and her father will not let her marry just anyone, and now, despite Maria’s years, she is still healthy. Her betrothed will see all that. He’ll be looking for a woman who can do the work.

Maria can do the work. Everyone in the contrà says that. 

And the Lord knows Maria will need to be able to work. Fascism blooms as crops ripen, the state craves babies just as the babies cry for food. Maria faces a stony path, but one she will surely climb to the summit.

In this sumptuous and elegant novel you will taste the bigoli co l’arna, touch the mulberry leaves cut finer than organdie, and feel the strain of one woman attempting to keep her family safe in the most dangerous of times.

Portrait of Elise Valmorbida

Elise Valmorbida

Elise Valmorbida grew up Italian in Australia, but fell in love with London. She’s a designer, writer and teacher of creative writing. In recent years, she produced a feature film. Her fiction includes The Madonna of the MountainsMatilde WaltzingThe TV President and The Winding Stick. Her non-fiction includes SAXON: The Making of a Guerrilla Film, and The Book of Happy Endings, now published in four languages and four continents.

Judges’ report

The Madonna of the Mountains follows the life of an Italian peasant woman across some of the most transformative historical flashpoints of the 20th Century, from 1923 through to the early 1950s. Elise Valmorbida has written an engrossing, nuanced novel that is an indictment of poverty and power and a tribute to one woman's resourcefulness, resilience and courage in the face of civic and domestic oppression.

Maria Vittoria is from an impoverished rural family, who sell her into an abusive marriage to Achille. Maria and Achille have children and run a successful grocery shop that is upended by the fascists during World War II. Blackmailed by a cousin, Maria is forced to make compromises for her children and her husband that she can barely live with. Valmorbida writes of the dynamics of motherhood – its pleasures and its burdens - with great empathy and sensitivity. Written with great attention to the smallest details of village life – from the cultivation of silk worms, to the preparation of meals, to the traditional expectations surrounding marriage and family – this is a moving but unsentimental novel, one that might be considered a rural counterpart to the works of Elena Ferrante in its unflinching depiction of poverty, casual violence and the complicated dynamics of family and village life. It is a triumph of a literary novel that shifts in unexpected, utterly fascinating ways.

Extract

Her father has gone to find her a husband. He’s taken his mule, a
photograph and a pack of food: homemade sopressa sausage, cold
polenta, a little ask of wine – no need to take water – the world
is full of water. It’s Springtime, when a betrothal might happen,
as sudden as a wild cyclamen from a wet rock, as sweet as a tiny
violet fed by melting mountain snow.
Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk.
Everyone is working hard, making use of the light. Twelve huddled
households chopping, fixing, hammering, cooking, washing,
hoeing, setting traps, pruning vines, stripping and weaving white
willow, planting the tough seeds, oats, tobacco, cabbage, onions,
peas, and the animals are making their usual racket – but the whole
contrà feels wanting without her father. A body without a head.
In his breast pocket he has the only photograph there is of
her, made when she was seventeen, together with her sisters,
brothers, parents, grandparents. She’s almost unmarriageable
now, at twenty-five years old, but she’s strong and healthy and
her little sister Egidia says she’s pretty. It’s just bad luck, or
God’s will, or destiny, that there are no eligible men in this
valley or the next one, just sickly inbreds and hunchbacks and
men mutilated by the Austrians. It doesn’t help that the contrà
is so hard to get to, so far from the towns. And her father won’t
accept the hand of just anyone – he has his name and standing
to consider. He owns some property. He is a man of business.
He even has notepaper with his name printed on it.
Before the photograph, before the evacuation, Maria had a
proposal. The fellow had come all the way from Villafranca, he
had documents saying he didn’t have to fight any more, that he’d
have a proper pension and special privileges. But he’d lost a finger
and an eye.
Who knows what else he’s missing? her father said when he
turned the offer down. We can do better than that.
And Mama said what everyone says, all the cousins, all the
women: no se ri uta nessun, gnanca se l’è gobo e storto. Refuse nobody,
even if he’s hunchbacked and crooked. And Papà told her
to shut up with her stupid sayings.
Maria whispers to herself, imagining a field daisy, pulling off
one petal after another.
El me ama He loves me
El me abrama He covets me
El me abracia He hugs me
El me vol ben He cares for me
El me mantien He supports me
El me ama He loves me
El me brama He covets me
Nol me vole He doesn’t want me
El me dise su. He tells me off.
She repeats prayers from The Christian Bride. This book, her
only book, is dear to her. Small, bound in blue leather, with tiny
gold lines around each page, it has more prayers than she can say
and more sermons than she can remember, but the guidance at
the beginning – for my dear young girl – lifts her spirit and shows
her the way. While you pray, you do well to add light mortifocations
of the flesh. This is a way of offering sacrifice and also releasing your
spirit from life’s petty irritations.
She pricks herself with the needle, in her fingertips. She
watches as the blood appears. Her sewing must wait. She wipes
the dots with her handkerchief.
‘Please Lord, grant me the piety to accept the Holy Sacrament
of Marriage,’ she whispers aloud, even though there is no one to
hear her. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, ask Him to grant me a man
who will protect me and give me a devoted Christian family …’
But secretly she is thinking of how handsome her beloved will
be, as kind in the face as Jesus, as straight-backed as the priest, as
tall as her father, and sweet-smelling like a woman. Will he have a
moustache like her Papà, thick and bushy? Will he have a beard like
her grandfather, a swathe of old tobacco masking his face and neck?
Or will he have a moustache like her brother, two thin lines ending
in points? She imagines the hair on his handsome face tickling
her cheek. Her heart beats like a bird’s wings. She banishes these
thoughts and pricks herself. Once in each fingertip, neat as a rosary.
At the Canaan wedding feast, where Jesus turned water into wine,
the bride and groom had no appetite for blind passions – they knew
that God would hold them strictly accountable on Judgement Day.
Maria pricks herself at each wrist now that she has done her
ten fingertips. She wipes the blood with her handkerchief again.
She must keep the wedding sheet clean and white, like her soul,
like her body, immaculate and new. But she is old. Twenty-five
years old and untouched by a husband. Her fingers are without
thimbles. She has hands that can wring an animal’s neck. Arms to
stir a pot of boiling polenta. She’s a good investment for any man,
if only he can overlook her age.
She gazes out of the window. The eaves and sills are dripping,
the world beyond is dripping as it thaws. Some of the trees are
still under snow, stooped and blanketed. She hears a mule complaining.
And then the church bells, clear and bold despite the distance.
One continuous minute of tolling. Single notes. They are
melancholy, not happy-sounding like a Baptism. Then there is a
pause. Someone is dead. Then another minute of bells. If it stops
now, it is a woman who has died, perhaps the old witch who lives
like a lunatic in her nightdress. There is a pause. Then another
minute of ringing. It’s a man who has died. Another dead man in
the world. A man gets three minutes, and a woman gets two minutes,
because a man is more important, because Adam was the first
man, and Jesus was a man, and God is the Lord, and the Disciples
were men, and priests are men, and the Pope is a man.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist