It’s debatable, who is at the heart of Genni Gunn’s novel, and that is partly why it is so satisfying.
It ironic, given its title that it is not the story of a single person, although much of it is told from a single perspective; ultimately it is a kaleidoscopic view of a family, whose lives are interconnected (with and by) that single person in complex and unexpected ways.
Piera “can easily imagine herself as the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel, or an opera”. To onlookers, she appears to have happily cast herself in that central role.
And because the discovery of a body openly contradicts what she has always claimed to be true, she alone is pressed to divulge her reasons for lying.
Her contribution to the narrative is central to Solitaria and, initially, it is Piera upon whom the narrative waits.
When she hears the news of the body being discovered, she is alone with Teresa. Piera has been living as a recluse and, once this information is released, she shuts herself into her room and declares that she will only answer to David.
But eventually, as the media follows up on the discovery of the body and increases their coverage, other family members arrive. Each views Piera’s role in the story differently. Each has their own contribution to the truth.
“We had been protagonists while others watched or did nothing,” says one.
As Dany Laferriere says in The Return, you might as well choose whether you are the cowboy or the Indian.
“I understood there and then that being a cowboy or an Indian simply depends on how the guy organizing the game feels. Or who is telling the story. There’s no use complaining about the role we’re given; we just have to take the one we want. These little frustrations, accumulated over the years, end up erupting one day in bloody revolt.”
It’s not so much the little frustrations but the bloody revolt around which Solitaria is structured. The dimensions of the revolt may alter for the reader, depending upon how much the reader accepts what is said — and what is not said — in the narrative as truth.
Piera has always kept a replica of the Bocca Della Verità, the Mouth of Truth, in her house. It used to hang next to the door when she was a child and as a wife it hung on her bedroom wall, but now it is put away, in a kitchen drawer.
Whether she keeps it there as a gesture of respect or fear, whether pride or disgrace is at the root of her truth, even the degree to which she is prepared to be truthful: these questions are ultimately left to the reader to decide. The reader, alone. (But of course not alone, either, but in the company of the story.)
With something that smacks of genre, you might get shortlisted if you’re Margaret Atwood, but even Oryx and Crake couldn’t engineer a win with the reek of sci-fi attached; the mystery at the heart of Solitaria — with its hype-styled press releases — is probably too much at the heart of its narrative for it to be taken seriously. Also, with some exceptions (e.g. Mistry’s A Fine Balance), the winners most often have Canadian settings.
Pleated. Press releases which identify some external events (e.g. the body’s discovery). These also propel the narrative as other characters discover information via the associated television broadcasts and arrive to offer their own contemporary views. Also Piera revisits her past with the use of a journal (part scrapbook, part diary, “fanned out” with other “items David can only guess at”).
Pleasant blend of complex and compound sentences, punctuated with short simple statements (often when emotions are heightened). Poetic bits herald Piera’s memory-laden monologues to David. Press release style is suitably perfunctory. Bit of playfulness in David’s ruminations on language (“How easy it is, he thinks, to go from a loner to alone. One letter away.”). Controlled use of Italian, particularly the word ‘disgraziati’.
Italy, mostly Belisolano. “David stares out at the Roman walls, the archways; ruins sweep past quicker than he can fathom. Six rows of pines, low buildings in yellows and reds, the roofs warm terracotta. Then suddenly, five minutes out of Rome, the city gives way to open fields, vineyards, olive groves, an expanse of green.” Some glimpses of Vancouver before David returns to his “motherland”.
The novel opens with a camera crew reporting on the discovery of a body: hard not to be engaged in such a plot. That is not resolved until pages from the end of the novel: it’s a strong pull through Piera’s memories, through the family conflict, and through the history of fascism in Italy. Style is varied enough to create a satisfying contrast, so that reading “one more segment” is a constant temptation.
You are curious. You believe that someone’s life can be ruled completely by love, romantic and familial. European rural and village life holds a certain charm for you.