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Novel set in Rome (“..strange, unfathomable winds that blow people one way rather than the other”)

24th October 2015

Early One Morning by Virginia Baily, novel set in Rome.


Practising what we preach : reading Early One Morning in front of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome

A layered story that threads its way through the streets of the Eternal City, from 1943 in the midst of war forward to the 1970s, two very different periods in the history of this beautiful and multifaceted metropolis.

The book starts at a time of war. Fear pervades the citizens, the Germans have taken over the city and they are beginning to transport the Jews out of the Ghetto. Whilst one small family is being herded, Chiara seizes the opportunity to help counter the terrible events by offering to take and hide little Daniele Levi. As his family is wrested from their home, she ushers him away from the horrors of the Ghetto and takes him to her own home. And there they settle down to a life of family routine, with Chiara in loco parentis, protectively overseeing her small charge along with with Cecilia, her younger sister.

But the little boy’s history and Chiara’s love and indulgence of him combine into a potent mix that sees him going off the rails as he grows into a young, attractive man. He takes her jewellery to pay debts, he becomes a drug user, he thieves. He absents himself for hours, and then days, and finally disappears altogether. Her friends keep an ear out for his whereabouts but Chiara has to move on with her life for her own sanity, surprisingly supported by Simone, her father’s lover.

A parallel story is emerging in Cardiff where Maria learns that the father, who has been a parent to her for all her 16 years, is actually not her birth father. She learns that Daniele is in fact her father. Her shock at the discovery prompts her to seek out Chiara and eventually she is aboard the cross channel ferry heading for Rome, to live with Chiara and immerse herself in Roman life and find out more about who she is – and who Daniele was… and perhaps is….


The backdrop of Rome through the seasons is voluptuously rendered, from Trastevere to Via dei Cappellari (where the cover photo is set), across the Campo de’ Fiori and right up to the Janiculum, where Daniele leaves notes for his family, tucked in and around the statue of Anita Garibaldi. Maria in Rome is riveted by the sensation of the city, simple acts like throwing open the shutters of a morning and imbibing the scene and sun as they penetrate the dark apartment, compared to the sensory disappointment of drawing the curtains back in dull Cardiff. It is a different life in Rome, a life full of vibrancy, heat, and antiquity – and as a reader you are part of the story. The city is realistically and evocatively rendered throughout: “A great expanse full of cars and coaches, traffic police, buses and darting people, and beyond them a huge white staircase leading up to a palace set in high, the ruins of more ancient buildings off to the side, other splendid domed buildings dotted about, an impossible-to-absorb extravagance of the ancient and the beautiful and the stuff of now, all thrown in together.” That definitely conjures up Rome for me!

The story moves back and forth between time periods and this works effectively for the most part, although occasionally the narrative slides a little off centre, and meanders into descriptive detail and events that can be distracting. But the book’s storyline soon returns to riveting form. A ‘must read’ to explore Rome through fiction!

Tina for the TripFiction Team

We hand over to Virginia who answers our questions:

TF: The cover has just such an incredible appeal – the perspective and rich, warm colours – it just enticed me to open the pages of this book, before I even knew what it is was about.  How much input did you have in the design?

VB: Thank you and I am really glad that it had that effect. I am a very visual writer – I have images in my head all the time when I am writing, I go to the places I am talking about, sniff the air, stand and contemplate, take pictures and consult them afterwards – but the task of coming up with one image that conveys something essential about the book would be beyond me.

I too think that the cover of ‘Early One Morning’ is wonderful. It glows, it captures something about the relationship between Chiara Ravello and the child Daniele which is at the heart of the story, it evokes Rome and it invites the reader in. My role was pretty much confined to saying, ‘Wow, Yes! You’ve got it!’

TF: The period of Nazi Occupation in Rome is very powerful – perhaps not as well known as the occupation in, say, Paris or Amsterdam, yet just as traumatic. Where did the seeds for this book start?

VB: The seeds were sown long ago! My introduction to the period came via the neo-realist films that I watched when I was an undergraduate studying Italian. The film ‘Rome Open City’ set and partly filmed during the Nazi occupation had a huge impact. Then, later, when I was in Rome doing research into the Italian resistance, I came across the factual account of the round-up and deportation of the Jews of Rome in the book ’16 October 1943’ by Giacomo Debenedetti. One of the tales Debenedetti tells is of a woman who claimed one of the Jewish children being deported as her own. But the child screamed for its real mother and was handed back and thus lost. And I asked myself the question: How might it be if the child didn’t scream, or didn’t scream loudly enough to be noted, or if the forcefulness and conviction of the woman who had claimed him somehow overrode the screams? If she succeeded in silencing him. How might that be? ‘Early One Morning’ is an attempt to answer that question.

TF: You have interwoven interesting human relationships, and how lives can cross in a serendipitous way, in many ways they are not conventional relationships. How did they all evolve?

VB: I’m interested in the idea of family and how bonds of kinship are formed. I am entranced by the idea of serendipitous encounters and what might come from them. My first novel ‘Africa Junction’ was in part an exploration of that, of the impact chance meetings can have and how we are all bit-players in each others’ lives. Here in ‘Early One Morning’ I am pushing at the notion of ‘You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends.’ The strong and sustaining friendship between my heroine Chiara and her father’s mistress, for example, comes about partly because the Nazi occupation they are both struggling to survive sweeps away impediments such as jealousy, propriety etc When the bigger picture is one of war, fear and hunger, petty concerns might fall away in the recognition that are all just little humans on the edge of the precipice and we might as well hold hands.

TF: Rome is a character backdrop for much of the story. What is your connection with the city?

VB: I first went as a sixteen year old to visit my aunt who lives there and I fell in love with it – with the city, the language, the food, the people. I have been a regular visitor ever since and have lived there on two occasions, most recently when I was ‘researching’ this novel.

TF: You clearly know the city very well. What are your top tips for visitors to the Rome?

VB: Get a taste of Rome in advance with some of the brilliant films set there – my top three today are: La Dolce Vita, The Great Beauty and Mid-August Lunch.

Don’t forget to throw a coin in the Trevi fountain if you want to return.

Check prices in bars before you sit down – sometimes drinks are a LOT more expensive if you take a seat.

Make sure you buy a ticket before you get on the bus (at the newsagents / tobacconists) or you might be fined.

Take yourself to Giolitti’s for an icecream.

If you visit the Spanish steps (you are bound to visit the Spanish steps!), don’t forget to go to the house where Keats lived.

Porta Portese market on a Sunday.

Walk around the centro storico and visit the Jewish quarter, Piazza Navona, the Campo de Fiori, Trastevere… Climb up onto the Gianiculum hill for breathtaking views over the city.

Take up the challenge of finding the best pizza a taglio (pizza by the slice). Make sure you try Pizza Bianca from the iconic Forno in Campo de’ Fiori (featured in ‘Early One Morning’).

Catch the train from Piramide out to Ostia Antica for a day (as good as Pompei).

I could go on…

I keep saying I am going to organise ‘Early One Morning’ tours of Rome and I’m only half-joking!

TF: What are you working on now and will “place’ play a big part?

VB: I am working on my third novel and place will definitely play a big part. I can’t seem to move my characters about until I know what they can smell and touch and taste, what they can see from their window, what is around the corner from their home and what the corner itself is made of. This one is set in Rome again but also in north Africa.

TF: Which books are currently on your TBR pile?

VB: Jason Hewitt’s ‘Devastation Road’ – I’m appearing at an event in London in November with Jason talking about our novels both set in war-time. I have heard great things about this book.

Two from the Booker list: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. The fourth Elena Ferrante one in the Neapolitan series is on the pile. I’ve also been dipping into a sampler for the Penguin Book of British short stories, due out in October. I’ve read the first three stories and they are brilliant choices so I’ll add that one.

TF: What are your plans for your next trip/holiday?

VB: I am looking into whether or not I can wangle another extended sojourn in Rome…

Thank you to Virginia – and I really hope she does go for walking tours of the scenes depicted in her book!

You can connect with her via Twitter. Come and join TripFiction for more literary travels on Social Media: TwitterFacebookPinterest, and when we have some interesting photos, we can be found over on Instagram too.

For lots more books to evoke the feel of Rome, click here.



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