About The Author
Catherine Banner was born in Cambridge and began writing at the age of fourteen. She has published a trilogy of young adult novels, the first when she was just nineteen. Catherine went on to study English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and has taught at schools in the UK. She lives in Turin, northern Italy, with her husband. The House at the Edge of Night is her debut adult novel and has been sold in seventeen territories to date.
The book opens in 1914. Continuing almost to the present day, it follows the fortunes of a family and a community on an isolated Meditteranean island, which though remote from the mainland is still at the mercy of European history, including two world wars and the financial crisis of 2008. It's a place alive with stories, legends and, sometimes, miracles. And while regimes change, betrayals are discovered and unexpected friendships nurtured, the House at the Edge of Night, loving restored by sometime founding Amedeo Esposito, remains: the backdrop for long-running feuds and the stage for great love affairs.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Catherine about how southern Italian folktales found their way into her book, why we are all pattern-making creatures at heart, and how a house or treasured object, can, through the passage of time, accrue a multitude of stories.
Author photo © Philip Hunton
Questions & Answers
You started out intending to write about the impact of the financial crisis on a small town in Italy. How did your research change the story you wanted to tell?
There’s something Toni Morrison once said: ‘If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.’ I think a lot of writers begin from a personal preoccupation: I started writing The House at the Edge of Night because I didn’t see anybody around me writing about what it was like to be young, in a small town in Europe, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. But when I began researching the historical events that had led us to that point, I realised that there was a much bigger, perhaps more interesting story to tell about how history impacts upon small places, and always has impacted, long before 2008. History is full of the untold stories of other lives, and the job of the writer isn’t always to write directly from his or her own narrow perspective, but sometimes to honour those stories and bring them into the light.
You tell a lot of interwoven stories over a long period of time. How did you set about structuring your narrative, and did you have all the characters’ lives mapped out from the outset?
I think, for me, the structural points on which I hung the narrative were the Esposito family tree, which I was able to sketch out once I had the first character, Amedeo, and the big historical events whose shockwaves hit the island: the First World War; the Second World War; the arrival of tourism; the 2008 financial crisis. So I knew it would be a story of four generations, each one pulled between their own personal story – their loves, feuds, friendships and aspirations – and the bigger history beyond the island’s shores. This became the basic structure of the book: the individual human being, passionate, tightly connected with others, superstitious, with a gift for storytelling, whose individual life is shaped and disrupted by the impersonal forces of history. Once I had that feeling for the book, the structure was there.
I loved the fables and fairy tales that head up the sections and which Amedeo records in his book. Can you say more about them?
The fairy tales were one of my favourite parts of the book to work on. I discovered many of these stories through reading Italo Calvino, Giuseppe Pitrè and Laura Gonzenbach, three great chroniclers of Sicilian folk stories. Others I allowed to develop from my sense of the basic style of southern Italian folktales, but influenced by the fictional history of the island. Giuseppe Pitrè is particularly interesting – a Sicilian doctor, he collected stories from his patients and recorded them as he travelled about the island in his carriage. He is a chronicler just as important as the Brothers Grimm in Italian culture, and yet not nearly so well known beyond. He was the initial inspiration for the character of Amedeo: a rational man, a doctor, for whom stories became so important that his life’s mission is to gather and preserve them.
As much as anything, your book documents the huge changes in women’s lives over the 20th century – for example, Pina was more or less inherited by her husband along with her father’s schoolroom. Were you conscious at the outset of that being such a strong theme?
I think it was only as I wrote that I realised that at the heart of The House at the Edge of Night, which is full of men involved in recorded history – going off to war, returning, establishing businesses, marrying, acquiring property – there was really a deeper story of the strong line of women without whose alternate, unrecorded history nothing would have got done.
The idea of ownership and name is very important in the book: whose name is legally on the title deeds of the bar is a recurring question which causes problems, feuds, private griefs in the family. It was important to me to show how the earlier women in the novel were erased from this recorded history and that later women had a more hopeful chance of inscribing themselves in the history of the island and the wider world.
So Pina is the strongest woman in the story in many ways, even though her voice never enters the narrative as Amedeo’s does. But later the story moves from Amedeo’s voice into the voices of Pina’s daughter and great-granddaughter, and much of that is thanks to her. I think that’s the reality of many families: one strong woman, a grandmother or great-grandmother, who worked, who cared for children and siblings and elderly parents, who sent others to school and to university while she herself remained enclosed in the home, but whose actions enabled later generations of women to flourish.
The power of stories is another central theme and some of the islanders cling on to myths about the island even after they have been disproved. Many ‘stories’ on Facebook open with variations on the ‘you’ll never guess what happened next’ theme. Is this our modern-day equivalent?
I think that’s a good comparison! Quite early on, I realised that a lot of The House at the Edge of Night was about the stories that we tell about ourselves, which can be subversive. The stories in The House at the Edge of Night are used by the community to record a kind of alternate history of the island, more important than the official one. And I think all the ‘folktales’ we tell, from the Iliad to the urban legend of Slenderman (an internet story which some of the children I taught narrated to me!) can have an extraordinary power. Because they are really stories about us – our hopes, our fears, our identities, our irrational, superstitious, magical ways of making sense of the world. We are pattern-making creatures at heart, I believe. So to those characters who cling to the island’s stories, the idea of a myth being disproved is in some ways irrelevant, or at least the wrong question to be asking. We claim our own reality by telling its story. It’s a powerful act in its own right.
Do you agree with Amedeo that it doesn’t matter whether the stories are strictly true or not?
Yes and no. Amedeo is a rational man – medicine is what allowed him to escape the obscurity and poverty of his childhood – and so even though he is drawn by the irrational power of the stories, by the magic of the island, the way he tries to collect the tales is scientific, almost anthropological. So when he talks about the stories having ‘truth’, he means a kind of poetic, symbolic truth which he finds beautiful. Whereas, to many other characters, the stories have a truth that is more actual and powerful than this. In the world of the book, those stories are true because they are part of the fabric of reality as the islanders see it, and so it was important to me to make them part of the reality of the book’s world too, to tell the miracles and the legends as though they really happened, not to put myself as narrator in the position of a sceptical bystander the way Amedeo occasionally can. So within The House at the Edge of Night, those stories are true and real, and though they might not represent scientific truth or empirical realism they have a power that goes far beyond the symbolic.
In many ways the islanders act as a kind of Greek chorus, forming a more or less collective view of a person or situation. Do you think village life still operates like this in some places? Have you experienced it yourself?
When I wrote the book, I was living in a small town in the north-east of England, working in another, and spending time with my family-in-law in similar small towns in Italy. What interests me is the ways in which small towns are, on a fundamental level, the same. For instance, there are certain places you can go – the hairdresser, the park, the bar – and hear a kind of ongoing, collective story told which over time becomes the unwritten history of that place. And even in big cities, our tendency is to form smaller communities and tell shared stories about them.
When I worked as a teacher, no matter where I worked, the children always had their own set of myths, starring a cast of characters past and present, constantly expanding, taking place in familiar locations. So this isn’t a small-town phenomenon, exactly: we’re all like this at heart, I believe, but the small town is a good metaphor. So the two choruses in the novel, the elderly scopa players on the one hand and the Committee of Sant’Agata on the other, are partly there for that reason. But disapproval and gossip are also important forces, and in some ways the choruses also represent that negative side of community life, the way a chorus of disapproval and censure can impact on an individual over the years.
There are some lovely descriptions of the wonder and excitement of archaeological discovery. Is the appeal of archaeology for you linked with the ability of an object to tell a story?
Definitely. I’m particularly interested in the way objects can be appropriated to tell wildly different stories. For instance there’s a debate going on throughout the novel about which objects are important and which are worthless. The farmers throw away the Roman potsherds but keep icons of Sant’Agata. Meanwhile, the archaeologists gather the Roman potsherds, and other things that look worthless to the islanders – bent pins, rusty brooches. Or, for example, the character of Robert, who wins a war medal but is later branded a deserter, feels ambivalent about that object throughout his life, whereas his granddaughter treasures it, because for her it tells a story not of violence and shame but of the heroic past of her family. I’m fascinated by the way a house, or a treasured object, can, through the passage of time, accrue a multitude of stories in this way.
Was the procession of Sant’Agata’s Day, which more or less bookends the story, based on real events?
Saints’ processions like these are quite common in Italy, at least the parts of Italy I’ve experienced. So there are certain things that are realistic: for instance, the carrying of the saint round the boundaries of the town, and the plunging into the ocean at the end. So I knew early on that the island would have to possess its own realistic traditions if it was going to be a believable place. But I also chose to begin and end with Sant’Agata because in a way the saint is the heart of the book. The story of Sant’Agata is the most meaningful story that the islanders tell about themselves, an irrefutable confirmation that their place is important, the centre of the world – why else would Sant’Agata have bestowed on them miracles and graces? And if this is a story about strong women, Sant’Agata is the strongest woman of all, a woman so powerful that she alters the very reality of the islanders’ lives.
You’ve left the novel somewhat open at its ending in 2009. Do you intend to write a sequel?
It would be difficult to write another book about the island; I feel as though I’d have to chronicle the whole 21st century and what happened to the bar and the island over that time, to begin to explore the themes that were central to The House at the Edge of Night. But I did intentionally leave the ending open. I was in a strange position when working on The House at the Edge of Night, writing about events that were still emerging as I tried to give them shape. So I chose to end the story just as the financial crisis was breaking, because I felt it would have been dishonest of me to try to wrap it up neatly. That’s not the reality I see. The area where I lived in County Durham was still full of closed shops, boarded houses; Italy’s youth unemployment just in the last twelve months hit a tragic 44%. There are signs of improvement, and yet there’s still this great gulf between places at the centre and places on the edges. When I wrote, I felt it was important to do justice to that. But I wanted to end on a note of hope – the whole book is about how the Esposito family, and their business, triumph in spite of history. That’s why I cut the book at 95 years, purposefully just short of a century, to leave space for uncertainty and hope in equal measure.