By Penelope Nelson
4 November 1997
Both The Villa Marini by Gloria Monetro (Black Swan, $16.95) and Matilde Waltzing, by Elise Valmorbida (Allen & Unwin, $14.95) focus on a migrant woman who arrives in Australia early this century. Beyond that starting point, they are quite distinct in form, style and story.
The Villa Marini begins with the image of a huge, abandoned mansion on the outskirts of a cane-field on the North Queensland coast. Who built this magnificent Mediterranean villa and why, within a couple of generations, was it left to decay in a tangle of ferns? The story that lies behind the image is as haunting as the question.
Mariano Grau is known locally as Big Cuba. Although he is Spanish, he learnt about sugar growing in Cuba. He confidently sets about building up a plantation on the Queensland coast, despite bad seasons, difficulty in communicating and an unfamiliar land. With him is his small daughter, Marini. The girl’s mother is dead, and that is not the only tragedy to haunt this small family.
The novel races along with great zest and appeal, bringing the landscape and customs of the time vividly to life. Marini’s schooling at the convent in town ends with a splendid, if Gothic, episode when a man, found unconscious deep in the bush, is brought to the nuns to be nursed back to health.
In time, Marini becomes the driving force of the plantation and of her family. She drives a sugar train to break a strike (Peter Reith will like this book) and works in the fields as hard as any man. She builds the palatial villa, and has the satisfaction of seeing it become the showpiece of the district. But this is fundamentally a Gothic melodrama, end there is no escaping the curses of the past.
The Villa Marini is atmospheric and skilfully written, and I could not put it down. Gloria Montero grew up in North Queensland, has lived in Canada much of her life, and now lives in Barcelona. She deserves a big success with this book.
Matilde Manin, the central figure in Matilde Waltzing, comes to Australia from Italy as a 28-year-old bride. Her enterprising husband sets up an ice works in Melbourne while Matilde brings up the children and makes the most of life in a country that has always drawn her, but is not at all what she imagined.
Matilde’s imaginings are important. As a child, she saw the map of Australia as the head of a Scottish terrier. The text is interspersed with somewhat whimsical asides from this Scottie. The blurb says that “moments of magical realism break the boundaries of conventional fiction”, but I confess to finding much of this literary embroidery rather tedious.
Matilde herself is far from tedious. Resourceful, proud and loyal, she is a wonderful rounded character.
An earlier Australia, which made no concessions to lonely migrant women, is well evoked. Matilde’s isolation in her widowhood is heart-wrenching; the moments of joy are good enough to sing about – or waltz?