Into this disorder, as into a warm sea, stepped Amedeo. He passed through the scents of jasmine and anchovies and liquor, through snatches of dialect and accented Italian and high lamenting songs whose language he did not recognize, through the light of fires and torches and the hundred red candles that illuminated the ghostly saint. At last, emerging from the crowd with his suitcase clutched to his chest, he found himself before an extraordinary house.
– The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner
The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner
The House at the Edge of Night is the story of four generations of the Esposito family, told over a period of one hundred years. The first of the family members, Amedeo, begins as a bright young foundling who has dreams of being a doctor. He is eventually assigned to be the only doctor on the small island of Castellamare. The novel follows his life span, as well as the lives of his daughter Maria-Grazzia, her sons Sergio and Giuseppino, and her granddaughter Lena, as they travel through both world wars, the many advancements of the twentieth century, and the recession of the twenty-first century.
I first fell in love with this book because of the attention given to character development. I often hesitate to read multi-generational books because I am concerned that cramming too many generations into a book will feel too much like a geneology of the characters. The House at the Edge of Night absolutely did not have this problem. When we first meet Amedeo, we see him grow from a child who admires his doctor, to a young man who wants to find his place in life but is unsure how to do that, finally into a married man who is satisfied with the life he has built. This book, however, takes this development one step further, and that is what I enjoyed so much – rather than ending with Amedeo’s satisfaction, he simply passes on the torch. Once he is established and happy with his life, the author eases into his daughter, Maria-Grazzia. We see her as a child with all of her struggles, see her grow into adulthood, taking up responsibility of the family’s bar, see her fall in love, and then see her establish her own family. In the background, of course, Amedeo still lives, and we see him age into an old man, no longer the main character but still a factor in the story. I always felt as though I intimately knew each primary character and understood their motivations.
In a multi-generational novel, it can sometimes feel as through the thread tying the plot together is rather thin. The House at the Edge of Night solves this marvelously by creating an additional character: the island of Castellamare itself. The island is said to be an island that weeps for itself and its history. Several explanations are offered throughout the novel for this weeping, one of which a rather logical scientific explanation, but either way, the author has done a marvelous job of establishing a setting that seems to have a life of its own. The story of the Espositos is really the story of the island itself, and from the very start, there is a rich description of the island, how it appears from the outside as well as the inside, the people of the island even as they age out of the narrative with the Espositos, the traditions of those people, and the struggles that the island faces as a whole. For example, during World War II, as an island belonging to Italy, there is a large conflict between the islanders for and against the fascisti. We of course see this conflict through the eyes of the Espositos, but the conflict resonates throughout the entire island, and the story seems much larger than the Espositos themselves. Instead, the focus becomes the way that the island and the islanders survive this conflict.
By exension, I feel that this story truly had the perfect setting because of its unusual perspective on much of the European conflicts. As a small island in the Mediterranean that is primarily run by tradition, Castellamare is of course under the Axis Powers, but is far enough removed from the Italian government that very little changed about the Castellamare’s governmental structure, other than a general sense of distrust of one another. Instead, the island suffered the loss of its young men, and that was a loss suffered by much of the world during that time. This pattern continued through much of the developments in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The island is removed enough from Europe to feel the gradual effects of development, but never seems to be quite caught up with technology. This really added a lot to the setting, but also allowed the characters to develop at their own speed.
In all, I would rate this book a 10/10. I feel like everyone has something they can enjoy: readers of all ages will have someone they can relate to, lovers of history will enjoy the historical perspective, there is enough romance to satisfy drama readers, and there is just enough magical realism for readers of fantasy.