In Natalie Danford's Inheritance, a young Luigi Bonnochio flees from the small town of Urbino in Italy to the United States just as World War II is drawing to a close. Eventually settling in the quiet suburb of Shaleford, New York, Luigi builds a rather conventional American life for himself, even purchasing his own home from the wages he
has earned by working as a janitor at the local hospital.
Life for an Italian immigrant in the 1950s is hard, but Luigi is buoyed along by the knowledge that once he owns his home, he'll know
that he is an American, "with his picket fence and green lawn." Indeed, Luigi seems to be a successfully transplanted man, even discovering the "blank acquiescence of marriage" by marrying Rita, a respectable American girl, and fathering a daughter named Olivia.
Although Luigi never goes back to Urbino, it is left to Olivia almost forty years later
to try to unlock the secrets of his past. "Your father did something to the Jews," a character tells her after she goes to Urbino upon finding a yellowed and decaying document, the deed to a house
that Luigi once owned. But why would her father have kept an old paper like that? It
is not a memento, like a photograph, yet it has to mean something.
In 1940, Luigi had a house signed over to him by the Levis, an Italian-Jewish family living in Urbino. He promised to look after the house for them until the allies liberated the town's inhabitants and it was safe for the Jews to return. But for Luigi, there
is a fine line between, protection, occupation and collaboration as the Germans eventually discover the Levi
family hiding out in their back shed.
After liberation, Luigi hopes that they will return to claim their house, but rumors soon began to circulate that they died in a concentration camp. Forced to carry the burden - his presumed guilt for actions taken - Luigi blames himself, his decision taking him to a dark place. Branded as a collaborator and "an assassin," he leaves his country never to return, forever shouldering his history of disappointments and failures as a friend.
Danford's novel effortlessly moves between past and the present when, in 1994, Olivia suddenly finds herself in Urbino, trying magically to make sense of her father's mumblings and to see if the deed proves good.
Her intention is to hopefully sell the property. Here she reconnects with Claudia, her long-lost cousin, meets Gianfranco, a sexy young lawyer, and discovers more about her father than she would like to know.
Straddling her characters between the old world of Italy and the new world of America, Danford bathes the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Italy, Olivia's observations while visiting Urbino often reading like a travelogue with her impressions of the country, the people, the customs and the mouth-watering food.
Though short, Inheritance contains some of the most stunning imagery seen in a contempory novel about Italy.
Soon the events in Urbino force Olivia to wonder whether her whole American life had perhaps been the result, not of the inescapable hand of fate, but of her father's wrongdoing. Luigi's past
always rattles tantalizingly out of her grasp, "like a few coins dropped long ago into a ceramic piggy bank" Ė coins that
can be retrieved only be shattering their container.
Meanwhile, Luigi's life in America becomes the distillation of a vision that sustained him on the boat trip over, through the lean years
in New York, and a house full of things that were his. Then there's that memory from forty-plus years ago, with his house in Shaleford seeking to erase the other one.
The ultimate beauty of this novel is Danford's honest portrayal of family and her vision of history, including the horrors of war and the immigrant experience.
Here history is held tight between the walls, written in a language that her characters canít often read. It is here that we finally see the sad consequence of those irrevocable decisions made a generation ago that can never be reversed.