“Casa Rossa” by Francesca Marciano is a powerful novel spanning three generations of Italian history. The story begins in rural southern Italy, moving to Rome of the 1950s and ’60s and eventually to New York in the 1970s and ’80s.
The author writes that the country as a whole went into a state of denial after World War II. Italians did not want to remember how they had been on the side of the Nazis or Fascism – perhaps not a surprising measure, since much history is blurred by denial.
“Casa Rossa” deals with the way history unfolds and passes on its version to the next generation. A “new memory” developed among many people: They alone had been against the Nazis all along. Yet the guilt buried within even those with the “new memories” affected the next generations.
Alba is the daughter of Lorenzo Strada and his first wife, Renee. Alina, Alba’s daughter, is the narrator. As Alba packs up the family’s old farmhouse, Casa Rossa, that Lorenzo, a painter, bought in the 1920’s, the family’s history comes to light. Alina pieces together the lives of three extraordinary women: Renee, her grandmother; Alba, her mother; and Isabella her older sister by two years. She tries to put the story of these three women in perspective as she sorts through years of denial and collective history.
Thus begins a poignant recounting of the sisters’ childhood, the lives of their parents, and then the story the grandfather, a moderately successful painter living in Paris in the 1920s.
Lorenzo had come from a wealthy family and used family money to refurbish the old ruin. Puglia, a region that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot, gives an idealistic setting, with its olive trees and warm sun.
Too many memories, Alina says. “When we were small, my sister Isabella and I used to wonder whether Alba had murdered our father. Murdered him, and then made up the suicide story.”
Isabella immerses herself in radical politics in Italy. Alina moves to New York. She migrates to the art world, where she assumes peoples’ pasts do not count but where she finds little sense of belonging.
Renee, the grandmother of Alina and Isabella, is known only through a few photographs. She was a strikingly beautiful Tunisian woman, who ran off with a German lover, leaving 5-year-old daughter Alba with Lorenzo. This betrayal impacted the lives of the next two generations. As Alina sorts through the old farmhouse things begin to finally make sense and with the truth, healing can finally begin.
The manipulation of memory and reconstruction of the past permeates this story about a particular piece of Italian history. Denial, an effective strategy for survival, can make people stronger, as is evident with Alba.
Francesca Marciano’s descriptions of rural Italy, Rome and New York City create a fascinating backdrop for this novel.