Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Sometimes a family’s deepest silences hide the most powerful secrets.
For Mina, a London-based travel writer, the enigmatic silence surrounding her aunt Carmela has become a personal obsession.
Carmela disappeared from her Italian hometown long ago and is mentioned only in fragments and whispers. Mina has resisted prying, respectful of her family’s Sardinian reserve. But now, with her mother battling cancer, it’s time to learn the truth.
In 1952, Simius is a busy Sardinian town surrounded by fertile farms and orchards. Carmela Chirigoni, a farmer’s daughter and talented seamstress, is engaged to Franco, son of the area’s wealthiest family. Everyone agrees it’s a good match. But Carmela’s growing doubts about Franco’s possessiveness are magnified when she meets Captain Joe Kavanagh.
Joe, an American officer stationed at a local army base, is charismatic, intelligent, and married. Hired as his interpreter, Carmela resolves to ignore her feelings, knowing that any future together must bring upheaval and heartache to both families.
As Mina follows the threads of Carmela’s life to uncover her fate, she will discover a past still deeply alive in the present, revealing a story of hope, sacrifice, and extraordinary love.
Under a Sardinian Sky, the début novel from Sara Alexander, is the second book I've read in recent months set on the island of Sardinia and by the far the better of the two. The cover for the book is simply beautiful and would certainly entice you to pick it from the shelves as a summer read and upon finishing you wouldn't be one bit disappointed you did so. Right from the opening chapters I found the writing to be so evocative of the time and place and by the time I had finished the book I felt I had been on such a journey with our main female character Carmela that I found her story difficult to leave behind.
The story really is a feast for the senses both in terms of the wonderful traditional food described and the landscape and countryside of the island. Such beautiful writing created such vivid images in my head and although I never left the comfort of my sitting room whilst reading I really did feel like I was there on the island in the heat living and experiencing Carmela's life as she battles with her heart and emotions over her head and long held family and society traditions. The story opens in London, it's 2001 and Mina a travel writer with Sardinian ancestry is mourning the aunt she loved so deeply. As her own mother is now battling cancer Mina wants to reconnect with the past and write down her family story particularly as she knows there is a history regarding the disappearance of another aunt Carmela several years after World War Two ended. Here is where the story begins as we are taken back in time to an island where family and loyalty are so important and what follows is a stunning story of love, devotion and trying to follow one's heart.
I loved this story and read it in a few short hours as once I began it was one of those books where you say I'll just read another chapter and before you know it you have reached the end. The only problem I had with it is more to do with the beginning and the end everything that fell in between was excellent. Initially Mina briefly introduces us to her family and what has happened recently to her and then we are taken back to to the island of Sardinia. We don't reconnect with Mina again until the very last few pages and I understand how she was meant to tie things together and connect the present and past but her character just felt out of place and as no one in the family talked about Carmela how did she find out anything about her in order to write her story? I felt the story would have worked just as well with the absence of Mina or on reflection maybe if the very end had featured at the beginning it would have made the Mina element fit better into the story. Putting this issue aside as it really didn't feature that much and to be honest I even forgot about Mina so engrossed was I in Carmela's story. The remainder of the book was set at a time while although seven years after the conclusion of World War Two a military presence in the form of Americans is still felt on the island. This is what will change the course of Carmela's life forever.
Carmela lives in the small village of Simius and works as a seamstress in her godmother Yolanda's tailoring studio, it is a job Carmela loves. She is engaged to the son of a significant land owner and marriage to Franco seems to be her destiny. This match should bring great prosperity to her family. Family is key throughout the book and Carmela's family stick close together but work hard to achieve a living. Her father and brother's work away on the land in the countryside and at weekends all the family leave the village and gather together in the country at the family farm. There were so many descriptions of the daily life on the farm and of the fantastic traditional foods made by the women that it added a real sense of time and place to the story. It helped the reader to gain an understanding of the close relationships the women of the family all had and how they were the backbone of everything. The island seemed a world away from everything and that in some ways time stood still and in others it was attempting to embrace the changes that were afoot.
Carmela seemed different from her family members, she had more ambition and I could sense she wasn't completely satisfied to be marrying Franco. It was almost as if this had been set out for her and she had to accept it and not go against her parents wishes. This marriage meant everything to her family for it would boost their profile in society not mention the increased amount of land available for farming. Carmela being the person she is feels she cannot let them down and despite her hidden feelings is resigned to her fate, that is until a chance meeting with American Lieutenant Joe Kavanagh on a dark street during a fiesta. Later at the Curwin family's holiday villa where she works during the summer she once again meets Joe who helps save a cousin injured by a mine and in doing so a whole new world is opened up to Carmela. A world and a situation which makes her rethink everything she had been expected to do. She becomes torn in two and what follows was a gripping, absorbing story where the characters come alive on the page and you become more and more intrigued as to whether a happy outcome can at all be achievable.
Thanks to Carmela being able to speak some English she is taken on as a translator for Joe as he goes about army business on the island and through their trips through the countryside the spark that was established on their first meeting becomes ever stronger. I had conflicting emotions regarding the developing relationship that seemed to be happening before my eyes. What was unfolding although slowly and not too in your face did seem to go against convention and Carmela's family beliefs. Joe was married and Carmela engaged so should they be allowing their feelings to get in the way and over ride the personal situations they were already in? Her path had been set out and women at that time were not expected to deviate from it. Looking at what happened to her Aunt Rosa did Carmela really want to find herself in the same position? On the other hand the way Sara Alexander wrote the story I found myself hating Franco and Joe's wife for simply existing and being there as barriers to the love and the whirlwind Carmela was experiencing. Just like Carmela I was torn for some of the book as to what she should do. She had the weight and reputation of her family on her shoulders not to mention her dream of going even further as a seamstress. Was she willing to give this all up for something that could be just a flash in the pan or could she trust her feelings that this could be more than desire and something real and long lasting could be achieved?
Kavanagh was a fantastic character who was everything that Franco was not and although it niggled me that he was married, yet experiencing feelings for Carmela, the author did such a good job of establishing the feelings between the pair it became believable and I was willing to forgive the characters anything that they did even though it may have gone against convention. I felt for Carmela as time became of the essence as she battled to come to reach a decision. She couldn't go on lying to her family, a decision had to be made but coud she cause untold heartache to her family? Did her loyalties lie with the people she loved so dearly and the island which held her close to it's heart or will the lure of something different prove too strong to resist? I really didn't envy the choice Carmela had to make and the more the pressure increased upon her the tension seemed to up a gear in the story.
Sara Alexander had done such a wonderful job of laying out the story, establishing the characters and their history that by the time the climax of the novel came I was deeply invested in the outcome. There was such a sense of urgency and expectation that I was left gasping as we were left on a cliff hanger of sorts. The very end felt slightly rushed given all the time and effort of reaching that point and although it wasn't too predictable I didn't have that gasp out loud, revelation moment because I had read something similar before. Still I wasn't let down and found it to be a satisfying conclusion. Under a Sardinian Sky was a deeply satisfying story that I readily lost myself in. It transports you to the heart of a beautiful island into the life of a young woman who was brave, fearless and only wanted to follow her heart and find happiness. Sara Alexander is now an author I know I will look forward to reading more of in the future as this story proved to very enjoyable and reminded me just why I love historical fiction so much.
Many thanks to HQ publishers via NetGalley for my copy of Under a Sardinian Sky to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.