In literary terms, among the islands off Italy, Sardinia remains an oddly dead patch.
Sicily has inspired an abundance of song, stories and one masterpiece, Lampedusa's The Leopard. Corsica has provoked a few too many tales about bandits in the mountains and Napoleon's family tree. Sardinia, though, is renowned only for Gavino Ledda's Padre Padrone, and then more for the poignant film version than the original novel.
Now, Bianca Pitzorno, renowned in Italy for her children's stories, has written about a "sartina", a seamstress paid by the day. The story is grounded in oral history; "every episode has its origin in a real-life event". Pitzorno's patchwork assembling of sources relies on family lore but also includes postcards, letters and newspapers.
A seamstress can serve as a covert, inconspicuous observer of her clients' lives. More so than, say, the servants in Downton Abbey or The Remains of the Day, a seamstress can come and go, sharing intimate moments, exchanging confidences, literally seeing the local version of the emperor with no clothes.
Her access, humble social standing and skilled manual labour enable a deft author like Pitzorno to make points about class and poverty, discrimination and condescension. Distinction between an artisan (like a seamstress) and a mere maid are sharply drawn. The sartina's voice may be, by turn, discerning, mutinous, self-protective and self-educated. Pitzorno plays all those notes.
Our seamstress is left alone with her grandmother after a cholera epidemic, heir to a family buttressed only by "the strength of the men's arms and the dexterity of the women's fingers". We then follow the young seamstress through adventures and misadventures, all of which invite the reader to admire shows of resilience, forbearance and patience. "I refused to resign myself" is her motto.
Each story, told in a quietly restrained style, recounts an encounter between the seamstress and sundry bourgeois employers. The worst is left until last, when a hideously vindictive grandmother is introduced. The lightest touch involves a trousseau of sumptuous silks previously on display in a Paris brothel.
Pitzorno inserts period detail for sewing connoisseurs. We are instructed in how best to conceal valuables inside a corset. The dignity of labour is subtly re-affirmed; an expert seamstress not only works long and hard, but applies herself with flair, guile and artistry.
At one stage the seamstress hides her money in a "wishing tin". Her family have hidden their memories, grudges and pride in a similar receptacle, in this book.
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