Enchanting epic of love and betrayal set off the coast of Sicily
Fiction: The House at the Edge of Night, Catherine Banner, Hutchinson, pbk, 480 pages, €17.99
Catherine Banner was just 19 when she was first compared to JK Rowling. Her debut novel, The Eyes of a King, which was the first in a fantasy trilogy aimed at the young adult market, had not even been published, although it would later receive much critical acclaim. Several years later, the comparison with Ms Rowling is still valid.
Like the Harry Potter creator, Banner has successfully changed literary genres, winning a multinational publishing deal as she did so. Her latest work, The House at the Edge of Night, is a sweeping epic, almost a century in scope, and very definitely adult in theme, encompassing love and betrayal, friendship and war, rivalry and recession.
Set on a tiny fictional island off the coast of Sicily, it tells the story of four generations of one Italian family, beginning with Amedeo Esposito, a foundling from Florence, who was searching for a home of his own and believes that he has found it in Castellamare, a place filled with stories, legends and even the occasional well-timed miracle.
Amedeo arrives on the island at an auspicious time - in the middle of the yearly festival of Sant'Agata - and steps into a wondrous, magical disorder unlike anything he has ever experienced. Entranced, the young doctor embraces life in the first place he has ever loved, even as his country slowly but irrevocably moves towards the horrors of the First World War.
When he returns to Castellamare from the trenches, Amedeo begins an ill-fated affair with Carmela, the wife of the local dignitary, an action that will have far-reaching consequences for him and his family. He becomes intrigued by a crumbling house on the edge of the island which is rumoured to have survived four earthquakes and which locals believe is cursed. He decides to renovate Casa al Bordo della Notte, or the House at the Edge of Night, and thinks that he has escaped Carmela's clutches when he marries the beautiful, strong-willed Pina, who soon becomes pregnant.
But on the day of his son's birth, a scandal is born as rumours are rife across Castellamare that he has also just delivered his lover's baby. As Carmela's husband takes revenge, the disgraced doctor is forbidden to practise medicine on the island. Impoverished and desperate to remain on Castellamare, he and Pina reconcile and decide to restore their home to its previous occupation. It had been a bar before and could become one again. Soon it is the beating heart of the community, a place where the locals gather to gossip over limencello and arancello, eat rice balls, chocolates and pastries, fight over card games and dance to the songs of an organetto. It stays open throughout the years of fascism, war and recession, and provides a home for a myriad of characters whose fates are forever interweaved with one another.
Banner was 14 when she began working on the novel that would become The Eyes of a King. She went on to study English at Cambridge University and became a teacher before taking a calculated risk to take time off to research The House at the Edge of Night. The gamble has paid off.
Readers, prepare to be captivated. This is an evocatively written, enchanting tale filled with richly depicted characters. The House at the End of Night has been compared to Joanne Harris's Chocolat and Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres and Banner's tale can confidently take its place on the bookshelves alongside those novels as it, too, transports us to a magical, enthralling world.