Book Review: Soul of the Border by Matteo Righetto
Matteo Righetto’s Soul of the Border is an fascinating mix of adventure and historical fiction that focuses on the life of a tobacco-growing family during the late 19th century in the Veneto region of Italy. The hard farming life of the de Boer family reflects the wider trials which the working class of the region faced in order to survive during that period. Translated into English by Howard Curtis, it is a novel that places a gripping personal tale of survival and revenge at the centre of its meticulously depicted historical setting.
Augusto is the head of the de Boers, a family which produces tobacco in the village of Nevada in the Brenta valley. While Augusto and his wife do most of the work, their two daughters and their son help in any way they can, producing high quality tobacco that is then collected by the Tobacco Company. Because of the unbearably low compensation he receives from the Company which drives his family to starvation, in 1889 Augusto sets off to cross the border with Austria. Having loaded his mule with as much tobacco as he could hide from the Company, he seeks to trade it for precious metals with Austrian miners. After a few successful smuggling expeditions, in 1893 he brings his daughter Jole along with him. Three years later, Jole, now a daring 18-year-old, makes the journey across the Austrian border alone. In addition to seeking buyers for the large load of high quality tobacco she is smuggling into the country, she is determined to find out what happened to her father, who didn’t return home from his expedition two years prior.
Righetto takes his time building a mental image of not only the time and place in which the de Boers live, but of also the cultural moment in which the story takes place. His descriptions of the North Italian landscape appear in every step of Augusto’s and Jole’s journey. At a time just before industrialisation (the first train lines are being built in the region), nature is a dominant force in their lives. Their tobacco, and by extension their livelihoods, depends on it. The terrain, the trees, the rivers that they cross on their way to Austria can either provide them with everything they need to survive or threaten their lives. Righetto’s writing style never lets you forget the details that dictate his characters’ lives, and subtly includes interspersed paragraphs on how the mining and tobacco industry worked at the time, enriching the historical texture of the book.
Soul of the Border opens with a description of the historical moment it is set in, and slowly zooms in and becomes more and more about Jole de Boer. Her solo trek where she looks for clues related to his father’s disappearance while trying to provide for her mother and younger siblings brings forth a remarkable character. Her determination and bravery make her an unforgettable protagonist – one who is defined by the challenges she overcomes in her epic journey.
Howard Curtis’ translation of Matteo Righetto’s Soul of the Border brings for the first time in English this extraordinary tale of survival in the wild and a family’s determination to stay together and take care of their own. Written in sparse prose over often very short chapters, the story unfolds both in action and in setting with masterful pacing and precision.
Soul of the Border comes out on 18 October, published by Pushkin Press, who will also publish the second title of the trilogy in 2019.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.