Italian books. My review of the “the almond picker” by British-Sicilian novelist Simonetta Agnello Hornby.

After Elena Ferrante and Andrea Camilleri are you still searching in the Italian books shelf? Today I’m reccomending The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby. Actually I wouldn’t put it among the Italian books. Its place is in the Sicilian books shelf, if there was one. “La Mennulara” is not an Italian word, is the Sicilian way to call female workers who picked almonds from ground after men had beaten the trees.

La Mennulara, The Almond Picker, is the nickname of the main character of this book.

The story begins the day of her death, on September 23th 1963 in the village Roccacolomba.(Roccacolomba is fictional, don’t try to book a hotel there).

Italian books

The woman, “Mennù”, started working as almond picker at the age of six to help the poor family. Mennù had come a long way from the almond field. As a teenager she became servant of rich family Alfallipe.  Later she started to manage the family estates on behalf of the lazy Orazio, saving them from bankruptcy. At Orazio’s death, she took care of his wife. She obliged the three selfish and spoiled children to visit the mother by passing them a monthly wage. Yes, because La Mennulara, an illiterate waitress, died surprisingly rich.

The three Alfallipe brothers, back in Roccacolomba to find the money they think Mennù has stolen to their father, find a bitter surprise.  In her last letter, she asks them to publish an obituary of her in an important newspaper: something never seen before for a servant. This way they will have their inheritance.

While gossiping about Mennulara, people of Roccacolomba find more and more mistery in her life. Why a local mafia chief was at her funeral? How a woman who couldn’t even write properly managed so good the Alfallipe estate? Who sent the letters she received every month?

We discover the story of the Mennulara together with the characters of the novel, who gossip about her in their private conversations. The village doctor, the priest, the mafia chief, even Mennù’s enemies share with each other their memories about her. Day after day they discover she was not a just a severe worker, but she lived a secret life full of passion and pain. And we discover it together with them.

This is a novel you can call “choral”. The many voices of the characters describe a Sicily which was disappearing at the beginning of the Sixties. A place where traditions were so strong. Where a women born poor, even though smart and determined, could be nothing else than a waitress. 

“The almond picker” is the first novel of Simonetta Agnello Hornby, but all her books are about strong Sicilian women.

What I also like is Mrs. Agnello is an elegant lady, in blue dresses and pearls, talking a polished Italian with her noble Sicilian accent. Before becoming a writer she was a lawyer in UK specialized in family  violence and childhood rights. It’s for sure the only one among Italian books dedicated to the British Airways. Yes, becuase the author had the idea of the story waiting for a delayed flight Palermo – London. Simonetta Agnello Hornby clearly loves the traditions of her family. I have the feeling that her female characters are much more real than fictional.

If you want to know better the author and her love for Sicily, you can have a look to some TV shows she appeared in.

(Links are below, but they are available only in Italian). 

Simonetta Agnello Hornby appeared in a documentary featuring a trip she took in Italy, from North to South, with her son George Hornby. They provided an unconventional and funny view of Milan, Rome, Tuscany, Naples and of course Sicily. The contrast between mother’s aplomb and son’s British humour is so sweet. The show features the problems you have travelling in Italy if you use a wheelchair, because George needs one to move.

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In the last episode Simonetta and George reach the family masseria in Sicily. The farm, called “Mosè”, is now managed by Simonetta’s sister, Chiara Agnello. It’s a place where you can book a room and have a cooking course. Did you think that food was not in this story? The writer talks about this estate, Mose’ in the memoir Un filo d’olio, about her childhood in Sicily. “Il pranzo di Mosè is a TV show as well. You’lle see the Agnello sisters teach some of their family recipes and their rules of hospitality.

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