This powerfully written book will appeal to a wide audience in its sensitive exploration of loss and restoration across three generations in England and Italy. The tragic death of their child pitches fiercely independent Olivia and Paul, her art restorer partner, into the unfamiliar world of a Tuscan hill town and the nearby valley community. Restoring a long-neglected farmhouse initiates Olivia into the rural culture of survival and adaptation, and she learns much about herself and others from this life-changing experience.
The writer’s evocation of contrasting landscapes at home and abroad provides a telling metaphor for the complex emotional and psychological terrain which all, to a greater or lesser extent, must traverse. As the reader approaches the end of this thought-provoking novel, a deeper understanding of the human process of ‘restoration’ emerges.
In Restoration, published by Austin & Macauley, is the winner of the People’s Book Prize for Fiction
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Review in Valley Life by Francesco Nevola:
Her novel is as informed by her acute observation of nature, both Italian and British, as by her astute ability to render the often complicated relations uniting people. Reading her book, enriched by years of experience living in Tuscany, we learn as much about the British as we do about the Italians. Written with sensitivity, In Restoration is an engaging story by a distinctive new voice from which we look forward to a sequel.
Set between the hills of Tuscany and the suburbs of the Home Counties, Valerie Thornhill’s first novel surpasses the confines of the by-now-familiar territory of home renovation stories. Instead, she unfolds a persuasive drama of love, loss and reconciliation. With passages as fresh as
Unravelled over several decades and generations, we are gradually involved in the fabric of connections that binds the seasonal British visitors of her story to the community of Italians who help them make a home in the Tuscan landscape. Played out by a central trio of characters: Paul, a restorer of paintings, and his partner Olivia are haunted by a tragic death. They seek emotional refuge in Tuscany where Gianni, the enigmatic stonemason, draws Olivia into a complicated and often hilarious relationship.
Our involvement in the experience of loss and recovery that permeates the characters of In Restoration is such that on closing the book we feel as though we are parting with old friends.
1) Do you have experience of restoration in Tuscany? That’s to say, how much personal experience have you drawn upon?
Yes, I have. There is a lot of personal experience in the description of the ruin that is gradually restored, but the local figures, though mostly based on people I have known, are modified or developed. Some of my own life is woven into that part of the novel.
2) Do you regret the changes that are coming to the valley? Or are these part of the inevitability of history that the valley will assimilate?
That’s quite difficult to answer, but it certainly goes to the heart of the novel. The story centres on the kind of people – usually from the older industrialised nations – who want to restore a tumbledown building evidently abandoned by the local inhabitants. The myth of the pure, unsullied pastoral life has a long literary tradition, from the Greeks and Romans – Ovid, and Virgil – through Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw civilisation as a corrupting influence, right down to our own times. There is a yearning for a sort of pastoral paradise, an Arcadia, where all is serene, a land of milk and honey. Olivia seeks an emotional refuge, partly because she is on a quest for her absent father but also to find a way to cope with the loss of her child in surroundings that reflect a long line of survival back to the Etruscans, even before the Romans. In the valley she finds Gianni who uncannily resembles a figure on an Etruscan vase and provides a living continuity with the past. But Et in Arcadia ego – even in Arcadia, there is death. Change is inevitable, and we have to accept this.
3) Do you find more awareness of the need to preserve heritage in recent years, in contrast to the older generations who simply wanted a more modern and comfortable life, as I have seen in some other countries (I’m particularly thinking of Ireland and France)?
In reactions to the talks I have given about my book in Britain and the USA, there is certainly a growing awareness – in Britain this is seen in the enormous support given to the National Trust for the preservation of historic buildings and places of natural beauty. This is particularly so with older people, and increasingly with younger couples with families. But attitudes are quite different in Italy. The response to a lecture I gave at the British School (Academy), in Rome was really revealing. I explained that in In Restoration, everyone has their landscape, their childhood one, and the ones they respond to as adults, all with different meanings. Many of the Italians in the audience explained that they, instead, wanted to escape from the countryside. Unlike the foreigners who bought the abandoned houses, for them nature is associated with toil, cold, hunger – Maria Pia recounts all this in Chapter 22. In it she explains why she would never go back to the houses where she was born and grew up. Italy industrialised late, and even in the 1950s, over 75% of the population still worked on the land, most in some sort of share-cropping arrangement. They had no dreams of pastoral bliss and wanted nothing more than to build their houses, with all modern conveniences and comforts, on the main road – see Sibilla and Orazio’s squeaky new house in Chapter 23. This is still the case with their children.
4) Paul seems to go through a mid-life crisis, like many men. Do you think that in the end we will all have to settle for some form of domesticity?
Paul and Olivia meet in the sixties when she is at university in London and he is studying to become a picture restorer. They embark on a long-term relationship outside marriage that was relatively uncommon then, though widespread nowadays. Paul has doubts about the paternity of Tim, the child they lost in an accident. He thought she knew that he wanted to establish his career before embarking on a family, but instead he was overtaken by events and uncertainty. All that led to a breakdown when the second child was born, again unplanned. Paul had to work out whether he needed to be alone, especially when so much happened to him, as he saw it, without his consent, or whether he would try to find a way of overcoming his grief at the loss of the unexpected child, Tim, that he came to love. It would involve an attempt to restore some sort of family life.
5) In Restoration is quite sophisticated in its structure with its narrative and meta-narrative. How conscious of form are you when you write?
Before I start to write I have a loose idea of where the story is going. I never begin without an ending in mind, though it may change en route! I am conscious of the shape of the novel as it progresses and of the different layers and how they intertwine. But in the course of the work characters change in importance. Some remain in the background and serve the narrative while others develop a strong, often unexpected, voice of their own. I wanted to vary rhythms and textures, and found that it worked by having Olivia’s intimate thoughts in her journal contrasting with outside events.
6) What have been the initial reactions to In Restoration?
Very positive. It is deeply satisfying when readers talk to me of the way they see I have evoked different kinds of loss and restoration – of paintings and people, houses, relationships and landscapes. People react differently to the various levels, and that is as it should be. Many commented on the strong characters and loved the way that descriptions of landscape illustrate their innermost emotions and reactions. In fact, I was rather nervous when invited to talk to a book group with eleven members, five of whom had lost a child. They enjoyed the interplay of generations, particularly the impact of three generations of powerful women on the men who had married into the family. They all said that they had not read a novel with such a satisfying ending for many years. However, I am still disconcerted when readers assume I am Olivia!
7) Do you have any more books planned for the future?
Oh, yes! I am nearly at the end of the first draft of a very different novel, set in the future, that explores the possible and unexpected consequences of what we are doing now on future generations. It has humorous twists and is written quite differently – but that’s a surprise. The main character is male, young and a genius, so he definitely can’t be associated with me! Some characters never find a name. I’m entering the last part of the book and still haven’t found his name. Maybe he will remain just ‘G’. In 2012 I plan to start a work featuring the life of my grandfather, born in 1893 on a boat returning from India. He lived for over 80 years during the most rapid and far-reaching technological and social changes in human existence. He was the youngest son of a family that for five generations lived and worked in India – his grandfather designed the city of Allahabad and his uncle was knighted for his work as an engineer for the early 20th-century durbars in Dehli.
I have also been asked to write down stories I told two young American girls about their pony. I promised them I would, but
There are other stories that I should like to start working on, but I shall concentrate on these projects first.