Books set in Sicily – a list of pre-trip reading

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. In this case, books set in Sicily. 

books-set-in-sicilyOne of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place…or interesting books of history which tell the colourful stories. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.

I didn’t have a chance to read any books set in Sicily before I went there recently, but as I am SURE I will plan a return trip, I’ve made a list of a few titles I’m keen to explore before the next time.

Books set in Sicily

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

One of the classics of Italian literature, I don’t think my Italian would ever be up to reading the original, so I would need to read Archibald Colquohoun’s English translation. Interestingly, the literal translation of the title is not ‘leopard’, but the smaller serval cat. The publisher of the translated edition says:

Lampedusa’s masterpiece, one of the finest works of twentieth century fiction, is set amongst an aristocratic family facing social and political changes in the wake of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in 1860. At the head of the family is the prince, Don Fabrizio. Proud and stubborn, he is accustomed to knowing his own place in the world and expects his household to run accordingly. He is aware of the changes which are rapidly making men historically obsolete but he remains attached to the old ways. His favourite nephew, Tancredi, may be an ardent supporter of Garibaldi and may later marry outside his class but Don Fabrizio will make few accommodations for the modern world. Containing, for the first time in any language, the full original text, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic tale lovingly memorialises the details of a vanishing world while retaining its melancholic and ironic sense of time passing and the frailty of human emotions.

Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries by Victoria Granof (2001)

You don’t have to restrict yourself to novels and memoirs for your pre-trip reading, and with the pastry desserts of Sicily such a strong part of their food culture, this particular title caught my eye. The publisher says:

A lushly photographed exploration of the Sicilian tradition of pastry-making, including methods, ingredients, superstitions, and customs surrounding some of the world’s most beautiful and delicious desserts. Sweet Sicily takes readers on a grand tour of the fascinating island of Sicily – to pastry shops as well as convents, restaurants, and private homes – to discover authentic recipes for desserts and pastries. In this charming cookbook, Victoria Granof serves up 106 dishes that she’s redeveloped especially for American kitchens. Along the way, she offers fascinating historical facts about the island of Sicily, it’s people, customs, and the evolution of the pastry tradition, local festivals involving pastries, advice from the cooks themselves, and American sources for ingredients.

Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb (1996)

First published in 1996, this non-fiction book tells the story of the Mafia, from its peasant origins through to the 1990s, by juxtaposing essays on food and art with historical accounts such as that of the kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. The publisher says:

Peter Robb’s journey into the dark heart of Sicily uses history, painting, literature and food to shed light on southern Italy’s legacy of political corruption and violent crime. Taking the trial of seven-times Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, for alleged Mafia involvement as its starting point, Midnight in Sicily combines a searching investigation with an exuberant, sensual appreciation of this beautiful and bewildering island.

The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini (2010)

I love multi-generational family sagas, and this one certainly sounds like it fits the bill. The story is told through the eyes of a deaf-mute Duchess. The publisher says:

Set in the mid-18th century, Dacia Maraini’s unforgettable novel tells the story of three generations of the Ucria family, seen through the watchful eyes of the deaf-mute Duchess Marianna. Married at 13 to her own uncle and set apart from other people by her disablity, she relentlessly searches for fulfilment in a society where women either face marriage and endless child-bearing or a life of renunciation within the walls of a convent

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato (2014)

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays is the comedy, Much Ado About Nothing and it is set in Sicily (as is the first half of The Winter’s Tale). This novel explores the backstory to Much Ado’s lovers Beatrice and Benedick. The publisher says:

Hidden in the language of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous youthful love affair which ended bitterly. But how did they meet, why did they part, and what brought them together again?Messina, Sicily, 1588. Beatrice of Mantua comes to the court of her uncle Leonato, to be companion to his daughter, Hero. That fateful summer, Spanish lordling Don Pedro visits for a month-long sojourn on the island with his regiment. In his company is the young soldier Benedick of Padua. Benedick and Beatrice begin to wage their merry war of wit, which masks the reality that they dance a more serious measure, and the two are soon deeply in love. But the pair are cruelly parted by natural disaster and man-made misunderstanding. Oceans apart, divided by war and slander, Beatrice and Benedick begin their ten-year odyssey back to Messina and each other. In a journey that takes us from sunlit Sicily to the crippled Armada fleet and from ancient superstition to the glorious Renaissance cities of the north, Marina Fiorato tells a story of intrigue, treachery and betrayal that will shed a new light on Shakespeare’s most appealing lovers.

Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri (1994-2015)

I’ve never read any of these novels, nor watched the TV series, but everyone who does so raves about them. Inspector Montalbano is a fictional Sicilian detective, created by Andrea Camilleri. The series of over 20 novels and novellas have been translated into English, plus many other languages, and are best-sellers in countries right across the world. The publisher says:

Andrea Camilleri is one of Italy’s most famous contemporary writers. His books have sold over 65 million copies worldwide. He lives in Rome. The Inspector Montalbano series, which began with The Shape of Water, has been translated into 32 languages and was adapted for Italian television, screened on BBC4. The Potter’s Field, the thirteenth book in the series, was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger for the best crime novel translated into English. In addition to his phenomenally successful Inspector Montalbano series, he is also the author of the historical comic mysteries Hunting Season and The Brewer of Preston.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)

Another classic that I’ve somehow managed to miss reading. The Godfather tells the tale of a fictional Mafia family based in NYC. The head of the family is Don Vito Corleone and this novel covers the years 1945 to 1955, but also provides the back story of Corleone’s childhood (which is where Sicily comes into the story, with Vito Corleone growing up in the Sicilian town of Corleone).  Fans of the movies will be interested to know that the two towns which were used for filming the Corleone scenes were actually Forza D’Agro and Savoca (near Taormina).  The publisher says about this book:

The Godfather—the epic tale of crime and betrayal that became a global phenomenon.
Almost fifty years ago, a classic was born. A searing portrayal of the Mafia underworld, The Godfather introduced readers to the first family of American crime fiction, the Corleones, and their powerful legacy of tradition, blood, and honor. The seduction of power, the pitfalls of greed, and the allegiance to family—these are the themes that have resonated with millions of readers around the world and made The Godfather the definitive novel of the violent subculture that, steeped in intrigue and controversy, remains indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.

Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini (1941)

This novel was written during Mussolini’s reign in Italy, and has since been translated and published in English. The main character, Silvestro Ferrauto works as a  typesetter in Milan, but revisits Sicily after receiving a letter which reveals that his father has abandoned Ferrauto’s mother. Critics interpret the novel as being anti-fascist, and it certainly contains themes of social injustice. The publisher says:

Vividly capturing the heat, sounds and smells of southern Italy, Conversations in Sicily astounds with its modernity, lyricism and originality.
Driven by a sense of total disconnection, the narrator embarks on a journey from northern Italy to Sicily, the home he has not seen in some fifteen years. Through the conversations of the islanders and a reunion with his mother, he gradually begins to feel reconnected. But to what kind of world? Written during Mussolini’s time in power, Conversations in Sicily is one of the great novels of anti-fascism.

Sicilian Lives by Danilo Dolci (1960, reprinted in 1981)

Danilo Dolci was an Italian social activist and sociologist known for his opposition to poverty, social exclusion and the Mafia on Sicily. In the 1950s and 1960s he published a series of books exploring the lives and conditions of Sicilians, and the power of the mafia. The publisher says:

When Danilo Docli, peace worker, organizer, educator, first arrived in 1952 in Trappeto, a village of peasants and fishermen in western Sicily, there were no streets, just mud and dust, not a single drugstore, not even a sewer. (In fact, the local dialect didn’t even have a word for sewer.) Like other Sicilians, the villagers, seen by many Italians as “bandits,” “dirt-eaters,” and “savages,” had, in effect, been mute for centuries. Dolci’s years of work broke this silence. The result is “Sicilian Lives,” a book which reveals the intimate experiences and perceptions of a wide range of Sicilians, rural and urban, through voices that are sometimes frightening, but always fascinating and unexpected. Danilo Dolci has collected a rich panorama of voices–the eloquent testimony of Sicilians who, at last, are speaking out to penetrate the most profound dilemmas of an impoverished land.

That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story by Marlena de Blasi (2009)

This one sounds totally fascinating.  It is based on the journey Marlena de Blasi and her husband took to Sicily to research recipes for a new book. While there, they are given directions to the Villa Donnafugata (literally: house of the escaped woman) and she discovers that the castle-like Villa Donnafugata is the home of eighteen widows and seven men who have been taken in by the owner, Tosca. This book tells of how Tosca came to own the villa, and the story of this unique community. The publisher says:

“At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away,” writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she finds, accidentally, one summer while traveling with her husband, Fernando. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, an elegant and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.
Sicily is a land of contrasts: grandeur and poverty, beauty and sufferance, illusion and candor. In a luminous and tantalizing voice, That Summer in Sicily re-creates Tosca’s life, from her impoverished childhood to her fairy-tale adoption and initiation into the glittering life of the prince’s palace, to the dawning and recognition of mutual love. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia’s grim will to maintain the historical imbalance between the haves and the have-nots costs him dearly.
The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women–now widowed–who once worked the prince’s land alongside their husbands. How the Sicilian widows go about their tasks, care for one another, and celebrate the rituals of a humble, well-lived life is the heart of this book.

Have you read any great books set in Sicily?

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