James McGrath
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Last Train from Liguria

by Christine Dwyer Hickey

(London: Atlantic Books, 2009)

Pb ISBN: 9781843549871

392 pp. £12.99

The identities of people, periods and nations are compellingly mercurial throughout Christine Dwyer Hickey’s fifth book. Though packaged like a standard historical novel, it defies predictability throughout. Atlantic Books’ teacherly blurb is justified in emphasising the sustained confrontation of “how identity and history are both mutable and inextricably linked”. Last Train from Liguria starts in Dublin in 1924 and concludes in the Italian town of Bordighera in 1995. In the ambitiously wide-ranging cast of characters, only the most incidental are confined to any one nation. Aptly, the main protagonists’ names, Edward King and Bella Stuart, connote royal figureheads of mixed national identity.

Fleeing Dublin for Italy after murdering his sister, Edward adopts his name (plus an English accent) after noticing an advertisement for King Edward cigars. In Liguria, blackmailing his former music tutor into giving him an immaculate reference, Edward secures work teaching piano to Alec Lami, the lonely child of an eminent Jewish Italian family. Meanwhile, the Stuarts leave Dublin for London after Bella’s adolescent passion for her surgeon father’s colleague incurs what remains, for most of the novel, an unspeakable incident. As a thirty-two-year-old spinster in 1933, Bella arrives in Italy to work as a tutor to Alec. Sailing from England, the shy Bella (born Annabelle) contemplates renaming herself Anne (“an indefinite article”, p. 19). Edward and Bella, exiled Dubliners, are thus united in Italy while acting as surrogate parents to a melancholy, eccentric child against the backdrop of Fascism.

Throughout the novel, overt parallels emerge between key characters across generations, enhancing their depths via both symmetries and contrasts. In the later settings, Bella (“Nonna”) is shown from her granddaughter’s viewpoint. As if inheriting the repressed half of Bella’s character, the contrastingly unreserved granddaughter is named Anna. However, most pivotal to the novel, albeit less foregrounded, is Alec, “the outsider looking in” (p. 159).

Continuing a pattern well-established in popular fiction of the past decade (Hornby; Haddon) Alec’s appearances repeatedly suggest autism — or more specifically, Asperger’s Syndrome. However, it is significant that these terms are unused here, and not only because Alec’s appearances (confined to the 1930s) predate Hans Asperger’s seminal 1944 outline of this condition’s manifestations. Dwyer Hickey’s novel also appears at the end of a decade in which three books by Dublin-based psychiatrist and autism specialist Professor Michael Fitzgerald have pushed Irish writers including Swift, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett into what seems to be emerging as an autistic canon. Fitzgerald contributes boldly to autism studies in such works (2004, 2005 and with Antoinette Walker, 2006). Yet for me at least, Dwyer Hickey offers more to this field through fiction than Fitzgerald does through speculative biographical reconstructions. Dwyer Hickey indirectly prompts questions concerning Asperger’s Syndrome as a condition which — as the term may suggest — exists significantly in the view of the beholder. Here, the novel’s quiet emphases on the fluctuating nature of identity are most poignant and perhaps most important. For the most part, Alec appears “extremely awkward” (p. 163) to those unready to understand him, particularly at school. Conversely, when he is shown with Bella and Edward, Dwyer Hickey’s unsubtle yet judiciously controlled post-Haddon invitations to autism-spotting largely cease. Thus, through one of this historical novel’s most notably “contemporary” facets emerges a valuable feat in character construction. Unlike Fitzgerald’s James Joyce (et al), Dwyer Hickey’s Alec is not “autistic”; Alec is Alec.

Inextricably melded to the complex identities of its characters, the novel’s main settings — within and between Ireland, England and Italy — reinforce themes of transience and transition. Trains, hotels, pubs and (in the Lamis’ villa) an atmospheric library-come-apartment feature prominently. The later counterpart for Bella is a darker place of transition: a home for the elderly.

Last Train from Liguria could be superbly stimulating in both universities and books groups. The vast array of minor characters make close reading essential in order to keep up with the constantly-moving plot; but through the almost self-referentially multiple layers of implication, there is much to speculate and indeed debate. Most pertinently, this novel prompts us to consider national identity as both an essential and an existential notion. The dialogue favours the former, with frequent generalisations concerning the English, Americans, Italians and Germans (continuing the “outsider looking in” motif, there are few such comments on the Irish). However, these crude observations are continually revealed as ironic by the broader narrative.

Nations and indeed continents are themselves effectively characters in this novel, and like the people who represent them here, these concepts are shown in continual change. “Europe”, an American character observes in 1933, is “in foul mood” (p. 100). Anna’s 1995 confession of knowing little regarding Italian anti-Semitism during World War II could have summarised my own viewpoint prior to reading this book. However, Last Train from Liguria is both informed and informative, as alarmingly rapid amendments to Mussolini’s racial policies are narrated via the dialogue. These events culminate in Bella’s attempt to bring the half-Jewish Alec to safety in London. The characters’ differing but changing attitudes to racism in Mussolini’s Italy make for unsettling reading on the British mainland in 2009. The evocations of England as, in part, a refuge from the rhetorical poisons of fascism now seem eerily nostalgic.

As the remaining pages of this mysterious novel become fewer with much remaining unrevealed, we are led to expect a spectacular conclusion. This we receive, but not in any predictable novelistic manner. Scope for a sequel is readily apparent — but this does not mean that the plot is unresolved. Equally evident — through the lively dialogue, the charming descriptions of music, and the captivating evocations of time, space and mood — is the potential for this novel to provide the basis for an internationally-themed Irish film for the coming decade (Dwyer Hickey, it is unsurprising to learn, has previously worked as a screenwriter).

Much as national identity is never confined to one land in this novel, the reading experience is not confined to the pages. By turns uplifting and disturbing, Last Train from Liguria lingers in the mind like a haunting song.

Works Cited

Asperger, Hans. 1991 (1944). “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood”. In Uta Frith ed. Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fitzgerald, Michael. 2004. Autism and Creativity: Is there a Link Between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? New York: Routledge.

__________. 2005. The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Haddon, Mark. 2003. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. London: Jonathan Cape.

Hornby, Nick. 1998. About a Boy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.

Walker, Antoinette and Michael Fitzgerald. 2006. Unstoppable Brilliance: Irish Geniuses and Asperger’s Syndrome. Dublin: Liberties Press.  

See also McGrath, James. 2007. “Reading Autism”, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. Spring 2007. 8:2. 100-113.