Book Review: Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

About the Book:

A nearly abandoned Italian village, the family that stayed, and long-buried secrets from World War II.

On a hilltop in Umbria sits Valetto. Once a thriving village-and a hub of resistance and refuge during World War II-centuries of earthquakes, landslides and the lure of a better life have left it neglected. Only ten residents remain, including the widows Serafino – three eccentric sisters and their steely centenarian mother – who live quietly in their medieval villa. Then their nephew and grandson, Hugh, a historian, returns.

But someone else has arrived before him, laying claim to the cottage where Hugh spent his childhood summers. The unwelcome guest is the captivating and no-nonsense Elisa Tomassi, who asserts that the family patriarch, Aldo Serafino, a resistance fighter whom her own family harboured, gave the cottage to them in gratitude. Like so many threads of history, this revelation unravels a secret – a betrayal, a disappearance and an unspeakable act of violence – that has impacted Valetto across generations. Who will answer for the crimes of the past?

Dominic Smith’s Return to Valetto is a riveting journey into one family’s long-buried story, a page-turning excavation of the ruins of history and our commitment to justice in a fragile world. For fans of Amor Towles, Anthony Doerr and Jess Walter, it is a deeply human and transporting testament to the possibility of love and understanding across gaps of all kinds – even time.

From the international bestselling author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

Published by Allen and Unwin

Released 28th February 2023

My Thoughts:

Few books have made me want to crawl inside and live there but Return to Valetto invoked those feelings intensely. The way it made me feel is akin to Still Life by Sarah Winman and we all know how much I love that novel. Dominic Smith is an author I enjoy reading; I’d definitely say he’s a favourite. I haven’t yet read one of his novels that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Return to Valetto has eclipsed The Last Painting of Sara De Vos as my favourite by him. There is so much atmosphere within this novel, you become truly immersed into the setting and the Italian culture, both the food and the family.

‘I thought of Luigi Barzini writing about the Italian family, where, he said, you could always turn for consolation, help, advice, provisions, loans, weapons, allies and accomplices. There was something primal and unconditional about Italian familial love, but also something brutal and ponderous, a beautifully made millstone around your neck. Elisa Tomassi, it occurred to me, was here to collect a debt, to balance the historical ledger by honouring her grandparents’ legacy, but she’d also run aground in Milan, I sensed, and had come here to find solace, reclaim some space to think and start over.’

The story itself was really interesting. Hugh has returned to his family’s villa in Valetto for a six-month sabbatical to write and present some history lectures. Upon arriving, his elderly aunts and grandmother are all up in arms about a woman who has simply moved into his cottage in the villa, claiming that it was left to her family by Hugh’s grandfather after the second world war. And so begins the unravelling of a decades old mystery that entwines two families. It’s a well-paced novel, a beautiful balance of character and plot.

‘In my book, I’d written that Italians walk through their own histories every day, passing the ravages and triumphs of bygone days. There are streets and hillsides where Roman and Etruscan ruins butt up against papal and nationalist monuments. And in dozens of empty towns and villages, the new settlement was made a short distance away, in plain sight of the original devastation or abandonment. Walk away and don’t look back was the least Italian idea I could imagine. In fact, looking back seemed to be the main point of leaving something behind.’

I do need to make special mention of the history aspect. Hugh is an historian and as such, there is a lot of history imbued throughout the story. I loved this, so much, Hugh’s historical gaze a mirror of my own. The dwelling on objects and lingering within places is exactly what I love to do, and I couldn’t get enough of these passages. They were written with beauty and true meaning.

‘I remember holding it against them for years, that they failed to see how these rooms were not only my boyhood sanctuary but wormholes through time, places where you might inventory the hours and the minutes of other people’s lives as precisely as a crime scene. Here was the glass someone drank from right before the earth shook and the ceiling collapsed. Here was the aspirin for the headache or fever, and you couldn’t help wondering why it had never been swallowed.’

Return to Valetto was pure bliss to read, like a balm to my soul. Highly recommended and don’t be surprised to see this one popping up at the end of the year in my top reads for 2023.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

  1. Pingback: Return to Valetto (2023), by Dominic Smith | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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