I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about this book. I was intrigued at first, then became confused by the huge cast of characters and was tempted to abandon it – but found my interest reignited when the plot began to resolve into a more coherent whole.
It’s the story of Maria Rosalia Inzerillo, also known as La Mennulara, a nickname she retained from her days as an impoverished almond-picker. In the small town of Roccacolomba there were few options during her childhood: Sicily was still a highly stratified, almost feudal society and education wasn’t available to the children of poor families. She went into service where she was expected to contribute her earnings towards her sister’s dowry. But at the time of the novel’s opening in 1963 she has just died aged 55 amid rumours that she is a wealthy woman and the source of her money is a matter of great interest to everybody.
As events unfold, it seems that Mennulara‘s life and death is highly unusual. She leaves detailed, rather bossy instructions for her obituary and funeral, and her employers are quick to take umbrage because she was, to them, only a servant. However they soon change tack when they realise that she has managed her affairs from beyond the grave, the Mafia are loitering and there is either an inheritance or the restitution of stolen money to be had. It is impossible to keep anything private in Roccacolomba, especially not the raging rows that erupt in the wake of Mennulara’s machinations. Everybody knows about what’s going on, and everyone has a different opinion about it.
On reflection, I think that the style of the book was meant to represent the gossipy, incestuous nature of small town Sicilian life. It’s written in fifty short chapters, covering events on nine separate days between September 23rd and October 23rd in 1963. Each chapter is named in a style with which readers of British classics are familiar: for example 1: Dr Mendico attends a dying patient or 10: Signor Bommarito, the surveyor, does not receive his morning coffee, and each chapter drip feeds a little more information from a different perspective. Indeed, so many different perspectives, that I was tempted to start recording all the different characters, just to keep track of them all.
What I found most interesting was the gulf between the lives of women as depicted in this novel. It is 1963. The daughters of the Alfallipe family have moved on and have independent lives (although one remains in an abusive marriage that no smart woman would tolerate today). Unlike Mennu, who retained a stoic sense of duty to the family throughout her life, they feel no compunction about abandoning their elderly mother, and Mennu actually pays one of them to visit her. She takes over the management of the estate because these selfish offspring are totally incompetent, and is obviously a highly capable woman – indicative perhaps of the wasted talent in countries that don’t support equal opportunity. She has other talents too, but these must be kept secret because Mennu herself is hidebound by the idea of ‘knowing one’s place’.
The Almond Picker is rather like an Agatha Christie mystery though there’s no murder to solve. If you enjoy unravelling a complex web of clues, you’ll probably enjoy this. It was a best seller in Italy.
Author: Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Title: The Almond Picker
Translated by Alastair McEwen
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005, first published as La Mennulara by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2002
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Angus and Robertson. (That shows you how long I’ve had this book… A&R bookstores collapsed in 2009 when the RedGroup died, dragging with it a venerable name in Australian bookselling since 1884).