Simonetta Agnello Hornby The Marchesa

ISBN 13: 9780141023700

The Marchesa

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9780141023700: The Marchesa

A richly evocative tale of a woman's struggle for life and love  A triumphant follow-up to Simonetta Agnello Hornby’s internationally
acclaimed The Almond Picker, this entertaining new novel is an intricate family saga interwoven with violent passions, cruelty, deceit, and the abuse of power. The Marchesa is an eyeopening historical drama about a remarkable woman and her extraordinary family, and the complex, often abusive relations that mark the lives of master and servant, brother and sister, husband and wife.

Costanza Safamita, beloved daughter of Baron Domenico Safamita, is a precious but unusual child. Redhaired, gawky, and shy, she is considered an outsider by many on the family estate, but her adoring father makes her sole heir to the Safamita fortune, and then everything changes—for them and for her. Now she must conquer glittering, alien Palermo—where, uncertain of her future, she falls in love with a charming, dissolute young marchese whose sexual appetite she fears she cannot satiate.

The Marchesa’s brave, unusual story offers an unprecedented woman’s perspective on the incestuous hypocrisy of the Sicilian aristocracy during a dramatic time in its history, as the Bourbon monarchy collapsed, the Mafia rose to power, and Palermo’s decadent aristocracy began its inevitable decline. These themes are flawlessly woven into the fabric of Costanza’s triumphant life, so that The Marchesa becomes not only an unforgettable human tale but a masterly fresco of a vanished world.

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About the Author:

Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born in Palermo and finished her law studies in England, where she now lives. She is also the author of The Almond Picker (FSG, 2005).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One“God ministers to old and young alike.”December 1898
On the Montagnazza, Amalia Cuffaro, wet nurse to Costanza Safamita, chats with her niece Pinuzza Belice as she braids her hair.Amalia Cuffaro finished spoon-feeding Pinuzza with the pap made from dry bread and goat’s milk. Using a corner of the napkin tied round Pinuzza’s neck, she wiped her mouth and chin—Pinuzza dribbled and would often spit out the food, even the things she was fond of—then gave the napkin a good shake and flicked off the bread that Pinuzza had spat onto her shoulder. The ants were lying in wait: the most populous colony had settled inside the hollow stone where the big water jug stood; from there they would emerge in compact formation to head for all the manna that fell from on high every morning. Disheartened, Amalia was lost in thought: a lot of bread and milk was thrown away in the household, where the only thing they had in abundance was hunger; they were bad ants—warlike, with big bodies and reddish heads, the kind that bite—and bold enough to climb up onto the chair to which Pinuzza was strapped. They would run all over her, their bites leaving her skin covered in red spots. Sometimes Amalia even found them inside the poor dear’s mouth. Pinuzza could not defend herself, and Amalia would have to stick her fingers into the girl’s mouth to rid her of the audacious little creatures. Still supple despite her years, Amalia straightened up in the middle of the cave, legs apart, ready to renew her stubborn, endless battle against the ants. She bent down and ran her arm between her legs to grasp the back hem of her skirts; on straightening again, she pulled the cloth forwards and tucked it into her waistband, turning her skirt into a pair of baggy, Oriental-style pantaloons. Then she took the short palmetto leaves that served her as a brush and got down to work, making sure that her skirts didn’t trail on the ground, lest even one of the horrible insects climb on her. She swept carefully, throwing the columns of ants into disarray as they converged on Pinuzza’s chair from every corner of the cave. She pushed the little heap of rubbish swarming with maddened ants onto the tiny ledge at the entry, and finally, with a last swipe of her brush, she sent it over the precipice—dust, bread crumbs, ants, and all. After the premature death of her mistress, Amalia had refused to join her son, Giovannino, in America and had returned to her family. Her younger brother, Carmine Belice, took her in out of a sense of duty, but reluctantly; after the death of her parents-in-law and Giovannino’s departure, Amalia had squandered her wages and even the property given to her by the Safamita family, and she came back to the Belice household as poor as she had left it to marry Diego Cuffaro forty years before. There was no room for Amalia in the Belice home—a hovel in which eight people lived and slept crammed together, along with the hens, the goat, and the donkey—so her brother had found for her and his daughter, Pinuzza, a cave on the Montagnazza, where there was no landlord. Moreover, as he would say to scandalmongers and to the merely curious, a doctor had suggested that the fresh air and sunshine would be good for Pinuzza’s health. On that part of the Sicilian coast, there is a white marl cliff standing about six hundred and fifty feet high and about six miles long, and its slopes contain a wealth of natural crevices and caves. In places this cliff protrudes into the sea like a promontory, and in others it retreats, curving back inland to form little beaches and coves. In one of these stood Riporto, the fishing village nearest to Sarentini, where Carmine Belice and his family lived. Since time immemorial the indigenous population had taken refuge in the natural caves of the Montagnazza—the local name for the cliff—enlarging them and digging out new ones when they had to hide from marauding Barbary pirates or Turkish corsairs. Access to the caves was impossible for those who didn’t know them; in fact, only a few renegades had ever managed to reach them and carry off Christians doomed to Turkish slavery. Then these enemy attacks petered out, and by the mid-eighteenth century pirate incursions had become a thing of the past. As people grew poorer and poorer, the caves were repopulated and inhabited by fugitives, criminals on the run, and young men bent on dodging the detested military service imposed by Italy’s newly united government. In the caves on the lower, more accessible levels, a small colony of poor wretches, invalids, outcasts, and birds of passage took up residence. They dug out precipitous, treacherous flights of steps which the rain made smooth and even destroyed with implacable regularity, turning them into dangerous slides. In some areas the mouths of the caves had been widened in apparent symmetry and could be reached only by narrow access passageways that ran along the edge of the sheer drop. From the sea, this part of the Montagnazza appeared to sailors by day like the undulating white façade of an immensely long building; in the evening, after sunset, when the oil lamps were burning, it looked like a fat, phosphorescent worm. The rest of the cliff curved southwards, then plunged steeply into the sea. Indomitable, it granted refuge to seagulls and, in spring and summer, served as a resting place for migrant birds. Lashed by wind and rain in winter, dazzling and almost incandescent under the summer sun, it was always most beautiful. It reminded Amalia of an immense, gleaming mass of sheep’s milk curds, trembling and smooth, freshly removed from the mould by the shepherd. Aunt and niece lived in one of these caves, the only one in the third row, almost immediately beneath the flat cliff top. The monotony of their days was relieved by weekly visits from Carmine Belice or from Pinuzza’s brothers, who would bring food and firewood. It was a hard life, but Amalia was grateful to have escaped from her brother’s hovel, where she could no longer bear to live after so many years spent in the palatial mansions of the aristocracy. Amalia loved solitude and nature, and on the Montagnazza she had these in abundance, while Pinuzza was a constant and agreeable companion. Amalia even managed to earn some money by mending clothes for the women below, which they passed up and down in a basket attached to a rope, and so she could indulge in her only luxury: Revalenza Arabica, a restorative powder to which she ascribed every property imaginable. As for Pinuzza, the Montagnazza was an improvement over Riporto. Her father and her three brothers had lowered her down to the cave; they had wrapped her in a blanket folded into a kind of cradle and bound like a cocoon at the end of a thick rope, which two of her brothers wound around their bodies and then fed out little by little as the third brother bore Pinuzza down the face of the Montagnazza, hanging on to the spikes fixed here and there to the marl to guide his burden and keep the sharp outcrops from hurting his sister. Thus had Pinuzza moved from confinement in the hovel, damp and almost devoid of light, to confinement in the cave. But there, tended by her aunt in the healthful fresh air and the warmth of the sun, she was restored to better health. Pinuzza was awaiting the ritual daily grooming. She was fourteen. Despite her infirmity, she cherished hopes and desires like any other young girl and looked forward to the pleasure of feeling neat and tidy. Amalia cleaned her mouth once again, wiping away the drool with a damp cloth, then lifted her chair and put it down carefully at the mouth of the cave. Before Pinuzza there was sea and sky, nothing else. The winter sun was pleasantly warm. “Today I’m going to delouse you and redo your braids,” said her aunt, and Pinuzza smiled. Her tormented and twisted little body had but one ornament: a head of thick, glossy black hair. Amalia took a large bone comb whose handle was embellished with mother-of-pearl decorations and began to comb the nits from Pinuzza’s hair, using the part with fine teeth. She parted her niece’s hair with nimble fingers, light and sure, as if the locks of the plump braids were bobbins and she were making pillow lace. It was a moment of particular intimacy for both of them: Amalia would go back over her fondest memories, and her talk would begin to flow freely. Pinuzza listened to her entranced. “When the marchesa was a lass she didn’t like having her hair done. It took hours to persuade her. And you couldn’t blame her neither, because her hair was all tangles, not like yours, which is manageable and straight. Only when I sat her at the window with the sea before us in the distance, only then could I do her hair proper.” “Why?” asked Pinuzza. “She had special hair, she did. But it wasn’t fine, for all the blood of barons that ran in her veins: it was wiry as horsehair and curly as unpicked wool, so the more you smoothed it down the more it would curl. You couldn’t keep it in order, and it even escaped from braids. But what a wonderful colour! As a little girl she had hair red as gold; the noonday sun it was. As she grew up it got darker and darker, like lumps of sulphur among the rocks; and when she became a woman it went the dark red of the sunset, with coppery highlights. When the sun shone on her head, her braids would gleam like the coals in a flatiron.” “She must have been beautiful, and she must have had lots of sweethearts,” said Pinuzza, sighing. “But she didn’t. People didn’t like her, for she was very different. They’d stop on the street and stare at her when she went by in her carriage, and they’d cross th...

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