Natalia Ginzburg: All Our Yesterdays

March 4, 2023

      Until I got halfway through this novel, I really wasn’t sure; I’d been a little put off by Sally Rooney’s gushing introduction and was wondering what on earth she had been on about. There wasn’t any sudden epiphany moment, but a growing sensation that this was good, the perspective was interesting and the message was becoming clearer.

It’s a novel set in Italy in the years of fascism leading up to the Second World War, the compromises people made, and the effect of Mussolini’s collapse and the German takeover. As the story progressed I found myself more and more reminded of Irène Nemirovsky’s astonishing Suite Française. There is the utter confusion of ordinary decent people whose lives are overtaken by war and who don’t know what to do, and a powerful anti-war message about the futility, pointlessness and total insanity of it all; even when war is over, the survivors are still lost. That’s a statement of the bloody obvious, and yet it takes skill to make us see it so powerfully and effectively.

There are so many characters you need to draw yourself a miniature family tree, just as if you’re reading a Russian novel. The gradual buildup to war is very much the background to the family story in the first half, with the focus on the youngest member, Anna, and her somewhat childish fantasies and dreams about revolution; people drift aimlessly, not conscious of what is going on around them or what is about to happen. Life happens to Anna, and this comes through in the evenness of the tone of the narrative, and the writer’s eschewing of reported speech.

Everything sharpens halfway through, with Anna’s unexpected pregnancy, a marriage of convenience to save her honour, and her move to a village deep in the south, in the middle of nowhere; here I was also reminded of Carlo Levi’s stunning Christ Stopped at Eboli, with its picture of dire poverty, isolation, ignorance and hopelessness.

Until I got into the rhythm of the story, I found the monotone, the evenness of the narrative, the lack of variation in pace a little annoying; the use of purely sequential narrative is not a style of story-telling that is much used nowadays. There were no twists in the plot, no subplots, no suspense, and yet it all gradually became a more and more compelling read. There’s not really a lot of story, if truth be told, there are just people, lives and consequences, and the way the effect of it all crept up on me was pretty powerful. I recommend this one.


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