The Gulf Between by Maxine Alterio (Penguin, 2019) 299 pp., $38
Julia sits by her son’s hospital bed in Queenstown, sifting through memories and secrets as she tries to recall how her family fell apart in the Gulf of Naples. She had travelled there in the early 1960s with her husband Ben and their children Matteo (10) and Francesca (8). Julia’s husband grew up in Napoli and left after the war, but he’s been called back to look after his mother, Alessia, the matriarch of the family.
On their way to the family villa Ben tells Julia that ‘Napoli is as corrupt as it is beautiful’ and that ‘Nothing happens unless certain families benefit financially or politically.’ The family official business is olive oil, but Ben and his brother Ernesto are involved in other deals that they refuse to tell Julia about: she is a woman, so business isn’t her concern. Ben becomes increasingly angry when she asks questions. Julia can’t even eavesdrop; although she speaks Italian, the family speak Neapolitan, another language in its own right. Gradually we learn the family politics and gendered roles that rule life, and how the effects of the war have lingered.
The action in the book is through Julia’s perspective. She’s the outsider in her new community and, like her, we struggle to understand the local rules and history. However, having the novel focalised through Julia comes at the expense of giving depth to Ben and Ernesto. They are complex characters whose psychic nuances are only touched on. Although we do get a chance to empathise with Alessia, I think an omniscient point of view where readers learn about fully rounded characters would have upped the narrative stakes.
Like her first two novels, Alterio’s third has a historical setting, but this is the first time she has amped up the suspense. While this is admirable, I felt it meant less room for her descriptive writing. We do get lovely descriptions of the food (without it feeling like a cookbook), and a vivid description of homeless children begging, but at other times we’re given information without any sensory detail. We’re told it’s ‘a sweltering June’ and that the ‘daytime temperatures reached furnace-like proportions’. The New Zealand scenes, however, have a touch of humour and a slower, reflective pace. Julia socialises with widows who are looking for a ‘replacement pudding-maker’; at the hospital she notices the ‘pale down’ on the nurse’s face, while the walls of ICU remind her ‘of avalanche country, potential suffocation’.
Alterio seeks to keep the reader hooked by reserving certain information. While she is working with memory and silences in the narrative, sometimes I felt she was holding things back in order to sustain the suspense. Julia says ‘Best not ask’, when one more question would have brought readers closer to the revelation. It seemed an obvious delaying tactic.
When we did get to moments of climax in the story, I felt it moved too quickly from one scene to another. In the final third of the novel we moved from revelation to revelation. I think the action could have been slowed right down in order to feel the force of each revelation and consider how it has affected the characters, and to wonder, along with Julia, what she’ll do with the information.
I did enjoy the depiction of Julia’s relationship with Ilaria and their mutual warmth and affection. Less so the ‘counselling speak’, as Julia tries to process what went wrong in Naples. She’s writing a journal, one of her psychologist’s recommendations, and calls it ‘a reflective process which revealed unhealthy behaviour patterns that I worked on’. This awareness was a little too text-book, too detached from emotion. My other quibble was that Julia drops the ‘f’ bomb in the novel. While I have no objection to the use of the word, it seemed out of keeping with her otherwise formal language. The narrative action is such that if she were inclined to swear, she would have done it far more often.
The family live in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and also in the shadow of silence about World War Two and the effect it had on the family. Alterio’s third novel compelled my attention. Just when I thought I had it all sussed it presented a gripping and convincingly surprising ending.
REBECCA STYLES has completed a PhD in creative writing at Massey University, where she wrote a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.