THE ALMOND PICKER
By Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen
Farrar Straus Giroux. 315 pp. $23
Maria Rosalia Inzerillo has just died on the morning of Sept. 23, 1963, when Simonetta Agnello Hornby's flinty tale of family secrets and shame begins. But this forceful, enigmatic woman continues to dominate the action after her death, as a tangled skein of deceit, cruelty and unexpected love unravels in the Sicilian village of Roccacolomba. The past is never dead in Sicily: Though she stopped working in the fields at age 13 to become a maid to the wealthy Alfallipe family, Inzerillo was known for the remaining 42 years of her life as "la Mennulara," the almond picker. And though she saved them from bankruptcy, the spoiled, selfish Alfallipe children, Lilla, Giannia and Carmela, haughtily refuse to follow Mennulara's explicit instructions about her funeral and the wording of her obituary, with consequences that drive the plot to the book's final pages.
With impressive technical skill, first-time author Hornby introduces a raft of characters in the first few chapters, laying out the intricate network of social relationships that enfolded Mennulara and the family she served. Her Greek chorus of villagers voices myriad questions. Was Mennulara the mistress of Judge Orazio Alfallipe? If so, why did his widow fondly rely on her, even living with Mennulara after his death in an apartment in Roccacolomba's working-class neighborhood? Why did Lilla, Gianni and Carmela visit their mother there every month, though they obviously hated and feared Mennulara? Why did the local mafia chief attend Mennulara's funeral? What was in the copious amounts of mail, including a monthly letter from a Swiss-based bank, that she received at the local post office?
The answers come gradually over the course of a single month, and they reveal as much about Sicilian society as they do about the remarkable Mennulara. No one batted an eyelash when she went to work picking almonds at age 6 because her father had lost his job as a miner and her mother was ill. People were startled, however, by Mennulara's "strong sense of her own dignity . . . incompatible with her social and economic position." Everyone agreed that a teenager who had lost her virginity (no matter what the circumstances) was good for nothing but domestic service, yet rich and poor alike were shocked when she began to manage the faltering Alfallipe estates. "The rich disapproved of them for allowing a maid to interfere with family decisions . . . the poor criticized Mennulara because she had sided with the masters to the detriment of her own folk."
By the time of Mennulara's death, things are changing, even in Sicily. A new motorway now connects Roccacolomba to the outside world, a construction boom has raised countless ugly concrete buildings, and the landowners have embraced mechanized agriculture. But the class system has changed hardly at all since the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1860; there is still no comfortable place in Roccacolomba, even in people's memories, for a woman who didn't know her place. As gradually revealed by Hornby, Mennulara's personality was intriguingly complex: She never challenged her society's rigid rules, which rate duty to one's family and subservience to one's betters far higher than individual achievement or fulfillment, yet she couldn't mask her pride, and she was quite capable of manipulating those rules to her own advantage.
American readers may be slightly baffled by characters for whom communal ties are as important as personal relations, and some may also be put off by Hornby's matter-of-fact portrait of a hierarchical world very foreign to our professed belief in equal opportunity for all. As the story proceeds toward its surprisingly moving denouement, however, the author finds some space for human feelings liberated from the constraints of caste and convention. A priest, a landowner and a doctor conspire to finally give Mennulara her due; two mafiosi are (somewhat romantically) shown to have a stronger sense of honor than respectable members of the upper classes. We should not be unduly cheered by these developments, suggests Hornby's sardonic epilogue, which displays the same cynicism about both human nature and social change that informs such other quintessentially Sicilian novels as Leonardo Sciascia's To Each His Own and Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard.
This cynicism is balanced by the pleasures of a series of mysteries satisfyingly solved in a well-crafted narrative, and by a distinctively Old World acceptance of things as they are. Rather than waxing indignant over the injustices that scarred Mennulara's life, Hornby invites us to appreciate the resilience and tenacity with which she confronted them. Whether or not she ever found real happiness -- that's the one question that remains tantalizingly unanswered -- the almond picker certainly carved out her own special niche in the stony, resistant Sicilian landscape.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940." She reviews books for various publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Newsday.