The “Saint’s Staircase” hangs from the volcanic rock cliffs of the once thriving town of Valetto, the last remnant of a house where a disciple of Francis of Assisi lived until an earthquake hit in 1695.
“The spiral staircase appears to float, a twist of wrought iron eerily suspended between the chestnut groves below and the twelfth-century spire above”, writes author Dominic Smith.
This engrossing novel is packed with such evocative descriptions that immediately pull us into seductive Umbria.
Here, centuries of history are layered not just into the buildings and landscape, but the people. As the novel opens, we are in 2011 in Valetto, where just 10 residents remain in a town that once boasted 3000. In WWII it was a haven for refugees, with locals working for the Resistance.
Our protagonist Hugh is a Michigan history professor and single father to Susan, who is studying economics at Oxford University. Despite his daughter’s entreaties, Hugh is unable to shake a pall of grief following the untimely death of her mother, his wife, some years before.
But there is a great deal to love about this gentle man who recalls halcyon childhood summers spent in a cottage in the grounds of the family villa, visiting his three aunts and grandmother.
He arrives in the town to help with the preparations for the 100th birthday celebrations for his granny Ida Serafino but soon discovers Elissa, a Milanese chef living in his cottage.
She says the home was gifted to her family by Aldo Serafino, Ida’s husband, a Resistance fighter who disappeared during the war. It’s a claim the Serafino women cannot accept until a terrible incident involving Elissa and Hugh’s mothers comes to light.
Smith’s Valetto is fictional, inspired by his research into abandoned Italian towns. The female characters are “an amalgamation of the real and the invented”, he says.
“I was lucky enough to grow up with three older sisters and a mother who has endured a lot, so it felt natural to write about strong, resilient women.”
As for the character of Hugh, Smith concedes there may be a dash of his own personality in there. “My two daughters just read an advance copy of the novel and were speculating about that very thing! I’d say Hugh and I share a habit for wry commentary, self-deprecation, and we’re both sentimental but try to hide it.”
About the author
Dominic Smith first penned short stories as a lad growing up in Sydney. “I gravitated toward far-flung places and people as a way of connecting with my surroundings but also as a way of ‘bridging the gap’ of the Pacific,” he says.
“That impulse has stayed with me as a writer.” In his last year of a graduate writing program he began writing novels, “calling them ‘long stories’ in case they didn’t work out”.
He now lives in Seattle, has published six novels including the multi-award-winning The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos, and is the father of two daughters.
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