Summer Read: The House of Scorta

There’s nothing like falling in love with a book and this summer I fell in love with The House of Scorta. I devoured it over a long hot weekend, which seemed fitting given the novel’s setting in the dry, hot region of Puglia in the southeast of Italy as described in the first paragraph of the book:

The heat of the sun seemed to split the earth open. Not a breath of wind rustled the olive trees. Nothing moved. The scent of the hills had vanished. The rocks crackled with heat. August weighed down on the Gargano massif with the self-assurance of an overlord. It was impossible to believe that rain had ever fallen on these lands, that water had once irrigated the fields and quenched the olive groves. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant could have ever found sustenance under this arid sky. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the earth was condemned to burn.

Opening in 1870, The House of Scorta chronicles five generations of the rough Mascalzone family, doomed to live under the weight of a scandulous reputation in the town that bred them yet struggle to accept them. Laurent Gaude, the book’s French author whose wife is of Italian descent, paints an incredibly detailed picture of the complex social rules and interactions in southern Italian culture. Gaude captures the dark shadows, age-old rhythms and brutal realities of southern Italian life in a way I have rarely experienced in prose, except maybe for the classic Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Throughout the twists and turns of the narrative, the themes of family, community, belonging, sacrifice, judgment and redemption are weaved together. Readers will gain an appreciation of the history of Italy, which was just a new country as the novel opens, and the prejudice that has long plagued the South. Here is another passage from the book:

After don Carlo’s death, the village was once again forgotten by the episcopate. That suited them just fine. They were used to it. Sometimes when passing the closed church, they even muttered amongst themselves, “Better nobody than a new Bozzoni,” fearing that the Church, in a kind of devine punishment, might appoint them another man from the North who would treat them like dirt, mock their customs, and refuse to baptize their children.

Originally published in French as La Soleil des Scorta, the book has won France’s highest literary prize and sold over 400,000 copies in that country. While it is a shame the novel hasn’t sold better in the United States — consider yourself in on a wonderful secret.