By Selma Sergent
Barbara Lambert is a Canadian writer. She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and the Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. ‘The Whirling Girl’ is her third novel.
When I picked up ‘The Whirling Girl’ and saw it was set in Tuscany I immediately thought Barbara Lambert would have a narrative dripping with food references exalting the tumescent lusciousness of sun-dried tomatoes or that maybe I was in for something along the lines of Frances Mayes’ Under The Tuscan Sun, depicting love, loss and finding yourself in a Mediterranean climate.
I found a little bit of both as well as a whole lot more. There is a bit of love and loss in ‘The Whirling Girl’. Clare Livingston unexpectedly inherits a property in Tuscany upon her Uncle’s death. She travels to Cortona with his remains to assess her situation.
Barbara Lambert’s description of the house Clare has inherited allows the reader to fall into the Tuscan landscape –
“It was ancient, weathered — the stone steps that led up to the arbour, too. One large window on the upper level scattered the setting sun from its many panes. Green shutters covered the others. Clare parked under a great gnarled oak. The air was thick with the scent of wisteria, and the sound of bees. “
Clare finds love with an Italian malandrino, a rogue, who, in spite of living in a castle cannot completely hide his roguish ways. With the Italian lover comes the Tuscan food, sumptuous, delectable –
“She will remember tagliatelle with seafood bathed in saffron, and a noble white wine from Montepulciano fetched from the private cellar of the restaurant’s owner.
She will remember
that they both ate prawns rolled into zucchini flowers, and that they
finished with a sorbetto of passion fruit.”
Love and loss.
There is even a little bit of finding oneself in ‘The Whirling Girl.’
Clare, a complex, flawed, yet charming heroine is a botanical artist. It is possibly through art and history and the lessons from the past that she begins to know who she is –
“She imagined herself approaching the orchid’s capture with a kind of reverent stealth. As she drew it to her paper in a net of lines, then embarked on a thrilling struggle to achieve the dark purple-brown of the curling petal, the way that it faded into Renaissance gold — to depict the hair’s-breadth stripes at the base of the petal — the sense came over her again that was richer than anything she knew. She thought, When I am doing this, I am true. “
In spite of the food, the love and the loss, ‘The Whirling Girl’ is more A.S. Byatt than Frances Mayes. Archaeological intrigue, rare and fascinating objects, Etruscan tombs and conversations which move confidently between botanical art, biology, archaeology and philosophical preoccupations take ‘The Whirling Girl’ out of the realm of merely being a novel lauding its Tuscan setting and into the larger considerations of history, art and the life of ideas.
The narrative moves quickly under that Tuscan sun; the whirling girl spins and dances amidst the mystery of the plot and the machinations of the characters much like Oscar Wilde’s Salome, dancing for the head of John the Baptist, a perfect introductory quote to the novel. If Clare continues to whirl and dance will she be given anything she pleases as Salome was? Or will all that whirling and dancing lead her to unravel the complex layers of her past, pulling her secrets into the light?
Just as it did in Salome’s life, the moon, the light, plays a part in Clare Livingston’s disposition –
“Much later — all night — the colours of Nikki’s shadow paintings pooled in Clare’s dreams, and those words ran through the channels of her sleep as if they were the lines of a poem she had forgotten. Terra rosa, moon glow, raw umber.”
In tune with Barbara Lambert’s life of ideas the Tuscan setting is more than just a landscape, the undeniable, substantial richness of it would have been right at home in the symbolist circles Oscar Wilde frequented while writing Salome. The presence of place, not just the beauty of it, but the solid dependability of it, allows for the expression of individual emotive experience. The whirling girl reels, scattering her own and the deeply held secrets of the earth as she twirls.
Perhaps, in the end, Clare does get what she pleases after all –
“Beyond the window, light rippled across the Val di Chiana. A haze of heat obscured the farther hills. She had climbed a long way for this calm.”
‘The Whirling Girl’ is published by Cormorant Books. You can learn more about Barbara Lambert at barbaralambert.com.
I am a former teacher and musician. I have worked as an editor and writer for several small publishers in Sydney, Australia. I have had some short stories published, as well as two plays. I also mess about with fiction on my blog. Once I was a hairsbreadth away from a publishing deal with a major publishing house. I have too many full length novels in my filing cabinet waiting to be submitted. I understand the vagaries of the writing life yet remain passionate about writers and writing. The world with all its flaws continues to inspire me.