The Countesses of Castello

Life in a small Italian town leaps off the page in this slender novel, The Countesses of Castello, about three eccentric sisters. They live in three flats in an aristocratic palazzo in Cagliari’s ancient Castello quarter, where rich and poor are mixed together just as they were in the past.

The eldest, Noemi, dreams of lost splendours, while the second, Maddalena, dreams of having a child. The third, known as Countess Ricotta ‘because she’s clumsy — she’s got ricotta hands — and because everything about the real world hurts her weak heart, which is also made of ricotta’, dreams of love. Countess Ricotta is the only one with a child, Carlino, a little livewire and a fine pianist. Around the family and its persistent illusions there are characters who are more solid but no less fleeting, because after all it is only illusion that does not flee: the old nanny, the shady neighbour, the shepherd Elias.

Milena Agus’ latest novel takes us back into that world all her own, where enchantment and disenchantment are blended without her ever passing judgement or dissolving the mystery. It is so easy to pack into your bag, and packs a big punch, with its lilting, fluid language and entrancing complexities of its characters. Easily devoured on one sector of a long-haul flight. Scribe, $A24.95

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