|Leslie Forbes: Waking Raphael|
Bantam (Hardcover), ISBN 0553382810
Leslie Forbes's latest novel Waking Raphael is weird. Beautifully written, rich in history and a sense of place, peopled with interesting and vibrant characters. But weird.
I struggle to write an adequate summary. At the heart of it, the book centers on the small Italian town of Urbino and the nearby ruins of San Rocco -- a neighboring village destroyed during World War II. Charlotte Penton, an Englishwoman, comes to Urbino, birthplace of the artist Raphael, to restore one of his paintings, La Muta (The Silent Woman).
During her work, Charlotte comes to realize that mysteries surround Urbino and San Rocco. Things left unspoken and unrecognized haunt the area and come to violence when a local mute woman attacks the Raphael painting. Charlotte, helped and hindered by the local community, sets out to discover the truth of San Rocco.
Many characters weave in and out of Charlotte's path: Francesco Procopio, local pig farmer and ice-cream maker; Count Malaspino, local landowner; Donna, young Canadian woman narrating a documentary; Paolo, Charlotte's assistant who pines for Donna. The list goes on and on. Each character narrates individual vignettes so the book builds like a patchwork quilt. No one character knows all the facts until the final, climactic confrontation. This book requires that the reader pays attention and makes connections between characters who may never interact with each other. Much happens before the attack on the painting, and the reader must sort through the happenings to identify the plotlines that lead to the conclusion.
If all this sounds confusing, you're right on target. The book did confuse me. As I said earlier, Forbes writes beautifully -- spectacularly in fact. She describes the country and the people with a painter's eye. At times I found myself so caught up in the beauty of the language that I could forget I cared little about the current plot twist.
The story weaves in and out of little sermons, focused on the plight of pig farmers in Italy or the history of ice cream or the state of Italian politics, which in the end bear slight connection to the plot. Once the mute woman attacks the painting, things fall more into place, and a rich story focused around silence and the importance of bearing witness to the past takes shape. If only the book started eighty pages later than it did.
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