Tasty Italian wartime stew as Paolo cooks a book
Eilis O'Hanlon on the 'Irish Independent' food writer's first novel
Some books are like nouvelle cuisine. Fussily packaged little bites that wouldn't fill an anorexic gnat. The new book from Paolo Tullio – award-winning chef, food writer and star of The Restaurant – isn't like that at all. If it was a dish, it would be a big Italian stew, generously stuffed with surprising and satisfying ingredients and full of flavour.
Longing And Belonging is an old-fashioned family saga which follows Celeste and the three de Vito brothers whose lives entwine with hers, from their small village in southern Italy in the 1930s right up until the present day.
Much of what these characters endure will feel sharply familiar to Irish readers. The grinding poverty; the reliance on emigration; the sense of being on the edge of things, fiercely proud of your own culture, but also hungry for the attractions of a bigger world.
There are even scenes where a young girl is sent to a laundry run by nuns after making love with her boyfriend shortly before he leaves the village to work for his uncle as an ice-cream seller in Paris.
Tullio touchingly dramatises how ordinary experience and the rhythms of rural life are affected by bigger historical movements, such as war and national tragedy.
San Gennaro undergoes the horrors of occupation, before Celeste's life, ironically, is scarred by liberation. There are other victims, too, such as the Italian men in labour camps sent away and forced to work on Nazi engineering projects in Albania.
This part of the story has a shocking outcome, which is part of the book's strength. It never stands still for a second. Something is always happening as the narrative sweeps along, picking up these characters in a remote backwater where people in Mussolini's day were still eking out the same hard existence as generations of peasants before them – not even speaking Italian, rather "a mix of corrupt Latin, traces of early Oscan and odd words of Lombard" – before depositing their grandchildren across the map in very different circumstances only a few decades later.
There's a particularly sad scene near the end of the book where we realise that, for these second- and third-generation immigrants, "their days of visiting San Gennaro had come to an end".
Tullio anchors this wealth of material by keeping it real. The son of immigrants himself, he's clearly never lost touch with his roots. He writes about what he knows. Longing And Belonging is perfectly titled in that sense.
It's written with love and suffused with a deep feeling for family and tradition. Tullio clearly cares hugely about these men and women and, as a result, you can't help caring what becomes of them, too.
It would also make a terrific mini-series.
Longing And Belonging can be purchased online either as a trade paperback or a digital download. Search Paolo Tullio on Amazon.