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About a year ago I heard Julia Blackburn reading her short stories on Radio4 and I was spellbound. So, when I saw her new book: 'Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village' I had to read it and wasn't disappointed.
Her style of writing is lyrical and full of pathos. It is a touching story of her life in a remote village in Liguria, Northern Italy. She moved there with her husband in 1999 and was soon befriended by the villagers. She kept a diary of her life among these modest people. They tell her their life stories, their life before the second world war when they were 'mezzadri' - 'half people'. She describes her walks around the villages whose inhabitants have left long ago and only a few villagers and shepherds are now still living there. Despite the harsh life in the past there is still a nostalgia for bygone days... The warmth of these people is quite remarkable despite all their struggles. They had never lost their humanity and humility.
Julia decided to write it all down before it is all forgotten and she indeed paints a very vivid picture of these people and their life in this harsh but beautiful land. A very enjoyable read and would recommend it very highly. An excellent book!
Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village, is set in Liguria, the left-hand 'armpit' of the Italian torso. The British author, Julia Blackburn, never gives the exact location of the village where she and her Dutch husband have come to live, possibly because she would prefer to keep her little piece of heaven to herself. However, it is perched high in the Apennines and not far from the French border. And breathtakingly beautiful, though she never labours that point.
This is a sort of travel book, in that it is about a particular area and its fairly recent history, but what gives the book its charm is the author's somewhat meandering conversations with her neighbours about their everyday lives, past and present. They are mostly old – some very old -- for all the young people have left the privations of life in the mountainous region for homes and jobs further down the valley.
Julia Blackburn must have language skills of a high order -- not to mention stellar homesteading abilities and considerable charm -- to have settled in a remote ruined house and got herself accepted by her neighbours. Most of these elderly Italians in fact speak Italian as a second language to a variety of fast-disappearing dialects. Just to follow their basic conversation, never mind become firm friends, is a substantial achievement, given that Blackburn was not even fluent in formal Italian when she arrived.
The hard life of these mountain people, shepherds and serfs (yes, feudal serfs in many cases), was made especially difficult during and just after WW2, which they mostly seem to have approached from a practical rather than a political point of view. The area was a stronghold of the partisans -- as much of Liguria was -- which meant that the local population came in for a particularly hard time from the German occupying forces. The period immediately following the cessation of hostilities was also characterised by the settling of old scores, which affected several of Blackburn's neighbours deeply to the present day.
I found this book easy to dip into, and I always found myself reading on later than I had intended, though it is a gentle rather than a gripping narrative. It is hard to describe and impossible to categorise. But read it. Do read it.
Brits buy old barn/ farmhouse employ incomprehensible foreigners to restore plumb and rewire, install swimming pool, acquire donkeys and fever pitch hilarity all round....that book market is piled high and saturated. Thin Paths is not such a book, it is a quiet work that treads carefully and respectfully through the lives of an Italian mountain community. The author adds hazy and grainy black and white photos (much in the style of Sebald ) sometimes offering explanation, sometimes not, as photos do not really tell much of the story of these people's lives. The author waits for them to reveal themselves to her over time and delicately she pieces their stories together. Glorious prose in a homage to those Italians and a small corner of Liguria.
Thin Paths is simply a wonderful escape into a world that is slowly being nudged out by modernity and consumerism. I love the tales of simple human lives and the wonderful descriptions of the landscapes. The interviews, interweaved with Julia's own personal and physical journey in and amongst these mountains and its people are perfectly knitted together. I couldn't put this book down and highly recommend it.
A melange of travel book and memoir, Thin Paths is an enjoyable read. The sub-title ‘Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village’ appropriately excludes reference to the seeing-eye author, whose ‘rescuing’ of a life that is being swiftly outmoded gives a melancholy tinge to these tales of persistence and occasionally derring-do. The smooth transitions between past and present are well handled: the anecdotal stories of real people, many of whom are now in their nineties form that vital link.
Julia’s partner Herman is for the most part kept hidden, and his long visit to Amsterdam for cancer treatment that must have been traumatic is deliberately underplayed. The author is too preoccupied with studying the flora and fauna and of unlocking the peasant life that is gone and lost for ever. She has a snatching eye that seizes on fragments, some of which are caught on camera, which reveal the mutability of this isolated community. In a section entitled ‘Fragility’ she picks up a bit of a tombstone and takes it home: The stone was heavy and its rough edges bit into the palm of my hands. I found a place to prop it at the back of the water tank. Reflected in the water, the sunlight flickered on the surface of the marble. The shadow of maidenhair ferns flickered across it and shuddered in the wind.
If you have read the author’s previous memoir of her horrendous upbringing, The Three of Us, you will understand her need to find peace and tranquillity in the remoter areas of Liguria. Deadly snakes and cat-eating peasants are as nothing in comparison. Nature is predictable and observable, while the human heart remains a dark mystery.
For years I have been a walker of Italian Mountain paths, winding trails and goat paths. Many of these times I have trecked past abandoned villages of tiny stone houses or picnicked high in the hills, my back against the wall of some old wall, that had previously been a home. Yes and inside there are often bits and pieces of broken something or other, all left as someone had just popped out,meaning to return shortly, but never did. After reading "Thin Paths", I now have the ability to see how they all were, as living vibrant little communities, torn asunder by the war. Now when walking I will see all those abandoned villages and hamlets with new vision, and sense all the other untold stories. I found the book absolutely fascinating, and a lovely, lovely read.
I loved this book. I live in Italy, in the north but further east with respect to the book's location, and can affirm that what is written is very true to life. I find a lot of books about life in Italy very shallow and not reflective of the reality, which is so irritating, but this one hits it really on the head. Even though the author is not Italian, she has the ability to observe and report accurately. In this way she managed to capture this very unique, slightly odd, slice of the society, the environment and the inter weavings amongst the various characters. They are not typical of the Italian culture overall, but of this particular area. Also loved the way the present was tied to the past by following very thin threads, really fascinating. She did a brilliant job of re-creating their little world.
Once started I could not put the book down. We moved into the same area around the same time as the author and until reading this book had many unanswered questions about historical buildings / features of the valley. Julia has skillfully protected the identity of the valley and villages without detracting from the story. The later chapters on the brutal treatment of the Ligurians in WW2 is particularly poignant. It is a pity that she did not include a postscript describing the reversal of fortunes and regeneration that the valley is currently experiencing. An expertly presented novel and a great read.
As I child I used to wander the valleys and overgrown terraces behind the Ligurian coastal towns, whilst on holiday with my parents. This book brings to life the area and the people, in a highly original and alluring way. I couldn't put the book down and read in in a day and half. I wish the plates were colour though, accepting that would make the price very high. An excellent book that will draw you in.
Beautiful and detailed observation makes me realise how much I have missed in the walks I have taken in the Italian Alps. The author really seems to have entered the lives of these "mountain people". Generally she avoids being sentimental, and it is clear that most of the people she talks to have much more tranquil lives now than in the past. Given the book is well written and expertly put together and is about an area I have often visited I am surprised that it did not engage me more. I think this maybe an irritation with the writer's lack of any analysis of the economic, social and political dimensions or perhaps a feeling that there's quite a lot of padding about toads and tadpoles.