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Posted on 21 Mar 2023 in Fiction |

DOMINIC SMITH Return to Valetto. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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The new novel from the author of The Electric Hotel uncovers wartime secrets in an Italian village.

Hugh Fraser is an American academic whose Italian mother, Hazel, used to take him to her home village in Italy for their summer holidays. He has fond memories of Valetto, this tiny hilltop village in Umbria, which had been a thriving town until a massive earthquake in 1695 sent a third of it into the canyon below. As a child, the old iron Saint’s Staircase, which was half lost in the void, had fascinated him. Now, only ten people live in the village and the staircase has ‘become a favourite spot for reckless tourists and ruminating locals’.

Hugh’s maternal grandmother, Ida Serafino, and his mother’s three elderly widowed sisters, Rose, Violet and Iris, still live in the crumbling medieval Serafino villa to which Hugh is returning for Ida’s one-hundredth birthday celebrations and for other, academic, reasons.

Hugh’s academic specialisation is, as he likes to say, ‘in abandonment’:

This had always been my quip at academic conferences and faculty gatherings, but it wasn’t until I published a book about vanishing Italian towns and villages that people realised how serious I was.

On this trip to Italy he is to speak on panels at university conferences and give guest lectures, and to re-visit some of the places where he had done research over many summers. He is also anxious to clarify an email Aunt Violet has just sent him, telling him that the stone cottage at the Serafino villa, which he had inherited from his mother and where they had always lived during their summer visits, had Una Occupante Abusiva – a squatter.

Hugh is a likeable narrator. He is still mourning his wife, Clare, who had died of cancer six years previously; and he is close to his daughter, Susan, who is completing a PhD in economics at Oxford University. He and Susan have spent a few days revisiting Rome, and she has returned to England, but they share their grief, and her frequent text messages often help him through difficult times:

‘Fwiw, I think of her every single day and it still kills me.

Have you thought about going back to that therapist/life coach?’

Hugh describes his train journey from Rome to Orvieto, where he is picked up in an ancient Fiat driven by Milo, who has been the tuttofare (‘everything-doer’) for the Serafino family since he was eleven, when his father died; Milo’s mother still cooks and keeps house for them all. Hugh has known Milo for ‘nearly forty years’, so they catch up on family news during the drive:

Do you think the woman in the cottage is bonafide? I asked him

‘Bonafide,’ Milo said, ‘or malafide, yes, that is the question.’ He drummed his calloused fingers on the steering wheel. ‘We will let the enquiries run their courses.’

‘Is there going to be a royal commission?’

His forehead and eyebrows suggested it was not out of the question. ‘Your aunt Iris is very complete.’

To Hugh’s surprise, the identity of the squatter, Elisa Tomasi, begins to reveal family history of which he has been completely unaware.

Elisa has a letter, seemingly written by Hugh’s grandfather, Aldo Serafino (now deceased), leaving the cottage to Elisa’s mother. Hugh knew that Aldo had left Valetto during the war when his activities as a partisan had been revealed by a local fascist sympathiser. No one had heard from him since, and the aunts are very bitter about this abandonment.

Elisa claims that Aldo had joined partisans in the mountain forests near her alpine village on the Swiss border with Italy; that he had lived with them under an assumed name, and had worked in their village for her father as an assistant casket-maker. Her family had always sheltered partisans, and when the war ended and Aldo came down from the mountains, weak, feverish and traumatised, Elisa’s mother, Alessia, had nursed him. In gratitude for the many years she had looked after him, he had written the letter leaving the cottage to her.

Unlike his aunts, who are determined to prove that the letter is a forgery, Hugh feels sympathy for his grandfather and recognises that Alessia’s daughter might have some moral claim to the cottage:

I was coming to understand that my grandfather had died a broken man. Felled by guilt and grief after living alone up in the mountains, his partisan friends buried nearby, the sepsis eventually taking him whole. How could Aldo Serafino have returned to his old life in Umbria, with its asparagus plots and frescoes, after all that?

The existence of this letter, however, is not the only shock Hugh suffers. When looking round the villa shortly after he arrives, his aunt Rose tells him that they had sheltered a number of children there ‘when the Allies began bombing Italian cities near the end of in World War II’:

This is where the children slept during the war starting in February of 1943. I remember because it was my birthday month and we had a little party down here … The children came to us from Turin and Milan. Mother had to make an extra birthday cake to feed them all.

Hugh’s mother, who had been eight in 1943, had never mentioned this, nor had anyone else when he had interviewed them for his book a few years earlier. He is even more shocked when he discovers that Alessia was one of these children and that she and his mother had become close friends.

In an attempt to find out if Alessia’s letter is genuine, and, if possible, to visit his grandfather’s grave, Hugh travels with Elisa to her ancestral village in the Ossola valley and meets Alessia. There are more shocks for him when he learns that she and his mother had secretly corresponded with each other until his mother’s death a few years previously, and Alessia has kept all two hundred and six of his mother’s letters, which she then gives to Hugh. Reading just a few of them, Hugh discovers troubling evidence that something traumatic had happened to the girls in Valetto, about which they refused to speak. Alessia is clearly still very distressed by this event but is eventually persuaded to tell Hugh what happened.

The result of this revelation echoes through the rest of the book. Fascism and retribution for past wrongs become as important as the outcome of Alessia’s claim on the cottage. Mixed in with this, however, is preparation for grandmother Ida’s one-hundredth birthday celebration – a donkey-pageant and meal – to which she has invited everyone in Valetto, plus everyone who has left it to live elsewhere, plus an unknown number of others. She has no idea how many will turn up.

Among the delights of Dominic Smith’s book are the glimpses of Italian life, the local customs and the closeness of small communities; his aunts’ frequent disagreements and rivalries; and his grandmother’s still feisty and determined character. Hugh comes to admire Elisa’s down-to-earth, determined approach to life and he is especially thankful to her when, as an expert chef, she volunteers to take over the catering from the local family, who want exorbitant payment for the extra guests when the consequences of Ida’s invitations become apparent. Elisa’s argument with these caterers is typically fiery:

They are imbeciles, canteen cooks, not worthy of sharpening a knife or peeling an apple … The husband, who calls himself a chef, lectured me on the nature of Umbrian cuisine, as if I were a fucking schoolgirl … You should have seen his face after my dissertation on Umbrian food.

Return to Valetto is easy reading, with a good story and well-developed characters. The Italian setting is enjoyably evoked, and the fragments of Italian history are interesting. The scattering of Italian words and phrases throughout the book may irritate some readers, but most are neatly translated without disturbing the flow of the text. Altogether, this is a novel that lives up to its promotional blurbs as being an engaging story about family loyalties, and about the lasting power of long-buried secrets from World War II.

Dominic Smith Return to Valetto Allen & Unwin 2023 PB 368pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Return to Valetto from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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