Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2018

Early One Morning (2015), by Virginia Baily

(Still making space on the B-shelf and reading this one at night while I tackle Nicola Barker’s 800+ page Darkmans by day…)

I came across Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning via the Readings catalogue back in 2015, and was intrigued by the blurb.  It’s about an Italian woman who rescues a child from the Nazi round-up of Jews, and what happens afterwards.

It’s not really a book about war or about the Holocaust, but more about how it is much harder to work with traumatised children than it seems and about how the urge to find out about parents and forebears isn’t always a quest with a happy ending.  But it’s not a grim book: it is surprisingly humorous in places, with some splendid self-deprecating female central characters undercutting any pretensions to heroism or self-pity.  It is also a book centred on female preoccupations: the perspectives of the male characters have to be inferred.  And while some of the plotting is a little flimsy, the fact is that – not many, not enough – but some Jewish children were rescued, and were hidden, and afterwards they and the people who had come to love them, had to deal with what happened to parents murdered in the Holocaust.

The book is written in two strands: the historical narrative, set in the latter years of the war when the Nazis occupy Rome (though they are almost entirely off-stage); and in the 1970s, where the Welsh daughter of the rescued Jewish child comes to Rome to try to reclaim her Italian heritage when she inadvertently discovers that the father who has loved her all her life is not her biological father. Maria is at that awkward adolescent age and she retaliates for the lie her parents have never got round to redressing by sulking in her room, sabotaging her own exam performance and taking up smoking.  And, crucially for the plot trajectory, she uses the letter that triggered her discovery to make contact with Signora Chiara in Rome and descends on Chiara’s tiny apartment to try to find out about her father.

What she doesn’t know, because Chiara lets her think that she was merely Daniele’s landlady, is that Chiara actually fostered the boy.  She took him on despite having lost her mother when the family apartment was bombed; having had her fiancé killed by the fascists; and having a disabled sister and an ancient Nonna to care for.  But Daniele becomes the child she would have had if Carlo had lived.  She cares for him all through the difficult war years, through bombs, hunger and privation not to mention the risk that the Germans will identify him as Jewish, and afterwards when – discovering the fate of his parents – Daniele goes badly off the rails with drugs.  Chiara knew nothing about Maria’s mother’s holiday romance with the adolescent Daniele, and she, like Daniele himself, knew nothing about the baby that was the result. And much as she loves him, she has seen nothing of Daniele for many years and doesn’t know where he is.

By nature Chiara is reserved, repressed and intensely private, her inner turmoil expressed only in her habit of hoarding – which makes her apartment a cramped but interesting place.  Maria goes on a steep learning curve: applying herself to Italian lessons with a fervour not seen in her studies in Wales; discovering Italian cuisine; accompanying Chiara on a tour of Rome’s historic sites; and exchanging her punk British clothes for Chiara’s long-unworn heritage wardrobe.  (In which she looks sexy enough to attract the attentions of Italian man which she initially enjoys but soon finds very annoying.)

The foil to Chiara is the irrepressible, pragmatic Simone, who was Chiara’s father’s lover, and in whose arms he died of a heart attack.  Bizarrely, Chiara overcomes her initial suspicions and they become firm friends, not least because Chiara – who barely knew her father – likes hearing about him from someone who loved him.  This is an echo of Maria’s yearning to know who Daniele was:

There was the church containing a famous painting, not to be missed.  And here was the elongated square, Piazza Navona, with the three fountains, the water bouncing off the great white statues now and sparkling in the bright midday sunshine.  It was a pedestrian zone, but this was the place, according to the Signora, that the Rolling Stones had driven slowly around in a white Rolls-Royce.  Back in 1967.

She wondered whether Daniele Levi had liked the Rolling Stones.  Or whether he had been more of a Beatles man.  Barry, [Maria’s step-father] who was a Beatles man, said you couldn’t be both.  You had to choose.  Or perhaps jazz was always Daniele Levi’s thing.  (p.291)

Early One Morning is a book written, I suspect, with an eye to discussion within book groups.  The loose ending leaves reconciliations up in the air: there is an interfering priest; there is Maria’s rejected step-father who has to sort out his relationship with not only Maria but also his wife still carrying a torch for Daniele; there is Maria’s teenage brother and how he feels about sudden abandonment by his sister; there is the question of whether Chiara will take on the role of Nonna to Maria; and there is the ambiguity of Daniele himself and whether he will ever turn up – and if he does, will he be the father Maria yearns for?  Underlying all this and the theme of identity, is the issue of forgiveness and redemption.

Even today we are not very good at providing support for traumatised children, yet all over the disastrous 20th century history of Europe, there were ordinary people trying to love traumatised children orphaned by war, in all sorts of circumstances not just the Holocaust.  Early One Morning made me reflect on the quiet heroism of these ordinary people and on their brave efforts to salvage a future for those children.

UNICEF was created in December 1946 by the United Nations to provide food, clothing and health care for children, but only individuals could offer love.

Author: Virginia Baily
Title: Early One Morning
Publisher: Virago, 2015
ISBN: 9780349006499
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99


  1. I’ve been clearing out shelves too and a few of my Bs went out the door.


    • I like this one, but it’s going to the Op Shop now that I’ve read it.


  2. I know it’s not what you’re writing about but our prisons are full of people who were the victims of poor parenting. Society needs to work out how to deal with – provide loving care for – such children before they’re permanently traumatised.


    • Yes, you’re right, and of course I’ve witnessed plenty of it in my years of teaching. But children who’ve experienced trauma or even torture sometimes, have special needs and in a migrant society like ours, all teachers – who are often the first to see the need, ought to be trained to support them and their parents and guardians.


  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Looks very interesting indeed.


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