There has been a lot of excitement surrounding Early One Morning, Virginia Baily’s second novel. Hailed as a summer must-read and chosen as one of Waterstones books of the month, I had high expectations of this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The novel begins in Rome in 1943, when an event occurs which changes the life of our main protagonist, Chiara Ravello, forever. She discovers a truck being loaded with inhabitants of Rome’s Jewish quarter. Amongst them is a young boy, Daniele Levi, and his family. It is here that a fleeting moment occurs between Chiara and the boy’s mother. The two make eye contact, and a desperate mother sees this as a chance to save her son. Unpeeling his hands from her coat she eyes Chiara, and Chiara makes the quick decision to claim the boy as her own nephew, to save him from his grim destiny at the hands of the German forces. From here we see the story of how these characters evolve, flung together in the most difficult of circumstances.
There are many novels set during the World War but in Early One Morning its presence is more subtle. After the initial events leading to Chiara and Daniele’s union, the war is largely absent, remaining instead in the background. Something that had a huge impact on the characters lives yet is rarely spoken of again, a troubled past being left behind. When the war is over, however, it is not the end of Chiara and Daniele’s struggles. Chiara has to battle to win Daniele’s trust and love, and this young boy has to process the loss of his family – difficult for anyone to comprehend – and to adjust to a new life with Chiara and her family. It touches on Chiara’s relationships and lost loved ones. There are also hints at the problems that occur as Daniele grows up, and fights demons of his own.
The story switches back and forth through time. From 1940’s Rome as Chiara and Daniele embark on a new life, to 1970’s Rome with Daniele now absent. We also journey to Cardiff in the 1970’s and meet Maria, the teenage girl who reaches out to Chiara claiming to be Daniele’s daughter, re-opening old wounds for a lonely Chiara. Here we glimpse a woman’s love and anguish at the absence of a boy she took on to be her own, loved as her son. We glimpse a woman facing up to the past, reflecting on loss, what might have been. There are a lot of questions left unanswered with regard to Chiara’s life. I would have liked more detail on how she came to be the woman we meet three decades later though this maybe just my personal preference. There is also uncertainty over what was the catalyst for Daniele’s later behaviour, and the reader in part is left to draw their own conclusions.
I loved this book from the opening chapters. As soon as I met Chiara, Daniele and Maria I was hooked. I just had to know what was to come for these characters, and the ending was perfection. Baily’s prose is beautiful and I could really sense what life was like on the streets of Rome, I could feel the heat, and imagine the taste of the cuisine which was vividly described and made me hungry! This is a compelling story of love and loss, grief and hope. It also deals a lot with identity – who are we? Who do we belong to, and where do we belong? It is a story of a woman’s love, and how one act can change the course of a person’s life forever.