A foundling goes out to seek his fortune on a mystical island in the lovely, flowing The House at the Edge of Night.
Catherine Banner’s first novel for adults, after three YA novels, is written with the kind of old-fashioned craftsmanship and artisanal care that her characters would respect. It’s the kind of tale made for a week-long vacation – sturdy enough to hold up during a long plane flight and enjoyable enough to want to come back to after a long day.
Amedeo Esposito, an orphan raised by a kindly doctor in Florence, has two loves: stories and healing the sick. At the turn of the 20th century, he gets a job offer he can’t refuse: to be the lone doctor on the island of Castellamare, which over the years has been conquered by everyone by the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Romans to the Normans.
“The island was a crumb between the pages of his foster father’s atlas; south and east of Sicily, it was the furthest Amedeo could possibly have ventured from Florence without reaching Africa.” It’s not much more prepossessing when viewed for the first time by boat: “The island was a low and brooding thing on the horizon, no more than a rock on the water.”
Amedeo arrives on the night of the annual festival of the island’s patron saint. To his delight, the story-collecting doctor learns his new home is full of tales. Its history is “a story of invaders and exiles, eruptions of liquid fire and ghostly weeping, mourning voices and caves full of the click of white bones.”
As legend has it, Sant’Agata has cured the island of a curse of weeping and saved Castellamare from invaders by bringing a storm of flying fish.
“The new islanders prospered, but for one thing: They were disturbed each night by the sound of weeping, which provoked in them troublesome dreams. Gradually, the situation became so unbearable that the islanders decided not to sleep at all. So the first settlers in their town of stone huts became a wakeful people. They gathered on nights full of flame and stars, and sang and shook tambourines to drown out the weeping,” Pina Vella, an islander, tells him. The everpresent sobbing gives the islanders a bad case of the blues: “[A]ll their songs were melancholy. No one could write a joyful song, not even the greatest of their poets.”
Amedeo soon is entranced both by Castellamare and Pina Vella, but not before he falls afoul of the local count and sets in motion a feud that will endure for decades on an island too small for such interfamilial warfare. In retaliation, the count has Amedeo removed as the town’s doctor. So he and his family run a bar at their home, The House at the Edge of Night, where he serves up coffee, lemonade, limoncello, rice balls, homemade pastries – and the occasional medical diagnosis.
“Since he was paid principally in vegetables and eggs and the occasional live chicken, he reasoned with himself that to continue to advise the islanders like this was not the same as practicing medicine. For the purposes of conscience he was now merely a bartender – and if he offered the occasional benefit of his advice, he was certainly not the first in the history of bartenders to do so.”
“The House at the Edge of Night” combines the dream-like quality of a fairy tale with a multigenerational family saga. It is occasionally reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s folk tales (which it name checks) and a less-fraught “The House of the Spirits,” by Isabel Allende.
Amedeo, Pina Vella, and their youngest child, Maria-Grazia, remain stalwart as echoes of the Great Depression and World War II reach the hardy islanders – who usually get by with little and learn to make do with even less. Banner follows the Espositos throughout the 20th century and into the 21st as the outside world starts to come to Castellamare – first in the form of a wireless, then a wounded British soldier washed up on shore, then in ferryboats full of tourists.
Through it all, the House at the Edge of Night remains a touchstone for the island – a convivial place where people can gather for an ice cream or coffee, to talk together and remember the story of where they came from.