#15 Valerio Varesi / River of Shadows

Valerio Varesi, River of Shadows (Il fiume delle nebbie), translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell (London: Maclehose Press 2011 [2003]). An atmospheric crime novel set against the backdrop of flooding in the Po Valley, and introducing Commissario Soneri  3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  A steady downpour descended from the skies.

Given that Italy is currently in the headlines courtesy of Berlusconi’s imminent resignation, it seems fitting to review an Italian crime novel (I also happened upon an Inspector Zen novel in a charity shop today, so this week has become a bit of an Italian affair).

Valerio Varesi’s River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger, and in most respects, is an enjoyable, quality read. The novel is set in the Po Valley of northern Italy, and offers a fascinating insight into the boatmen’s communities that work the Po river (if your knowledge of geography is as scanty as mine see here for further context; there’s also a helpful little map at the front of the book).

The novel has a tremendous sense of place, as its evocative cover suggests. The opening chapter describes the drama of the river’s rising floodwaters after four days of rain, and the strange disappearance of an experienced, but unpopular boatman named Anteo Tonna. When another man with the same surname falls from a window of the local hospital, Commissario Soneri is determined to establish a connection between the two, and the motivation for what he believes is a double murder. However, he soon comes up against the silence of the tightknit community of boatmen, led by the communist Barigazzi, who are unwilling to discuss their complex relationship with the missing man, one compromised by the murky politics of the fascist past.

I loved the atmospheric feel of this novel, the detail provided about life on the water, and the way the symbolism of the river was woven into the crime narrative (the rising floodwaters coincide with the violent deaths of the Tonnas, while the falling waters help to reveal the truth behind the case). Commissario Soneri is an astute and engaging investigative figure, and his interviews with various intriguing river dwellers, such as ‘Maria of the sands’, are nicely portrayed.

But there was one element of the novel I found highly irritating, namely the characterisation of Soneri’s girlfriend Angela, a one-dimensional, sex-mad fantasy figure who is averse to any kind of conventional commitment. Aside from being laughable, her presence undercuts the depiction of the otherwise professional Commissario. For example, I find it hard to believe that a policeman so committed to solving the case would consent to using a crime scene for an erotic rendevouz!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I’ve taken exception to the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction before (see my comments on Ingrid in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog). There does seem to be a pattern emerging, and I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of highly stereotyped representations of women are characteristic of Italian crime fiction in a way that they are not, say, for most Scandinavian crime novels. My impression is that male Italian crime writers tend to write for a male audience that expects its crime fiction to have an erotic dimension. However, in my view the latter doesn’t do the central crime narrative any favours (and I say this not out of primness, but because it’s so badly done!).

I will reserve judgement until I have read some further examples of Italian crime, and am actively on the lookout for a novel that proves my theory wrong. If anyone can point me in its direction I would be very grateful…

Mrs. Peabody awards River of Shadows an atmospheric 3.5 stars (one star deducted for its tedious representation of women).

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24 thoughts on “#15 Valerio Varesi / River of Shadows

  1. An excellent review! And thanks for pointing out that unfortunate portrayal of women in a lot of Italian crime fiction. I hadn’t thought about it deeply until you mentioned it, but you’ve got a well-taken point….

  2. Hi Mrs P, I haven’t read this book but thanks for pointing it out – I certainly want to find some of the author’s work in Italian to see if this is representative of his output.

    I believe that Berlusconi is the worst thing that’s happened to Italy in the last 100 years (yes, I include Mussolini), if for no other reason because I cannot imagine, without the way that he has managed to turn one of the great European economies and one of the cradles of western civilisation into the equivalent of a Banana Republic, that people would want to regularly discuss an entire nation as a whole is such discriminatory fashion – let’s face it, the whole world thinks Italy is a joke, despite all the great food, literature, music, cinema, painting, sculpture etc. that it has produced. And without him lowering the estimation of the nation to such an extent, I cannot imagine that it would be even remotely imaginable to have a debate that starts from the premise that an entire European country’s literary output might be more sexist than another. Are Italy’s writers, male and female, less enlightened than those in France simply by dint of having been born on the peninsula? Might be worth checking out some of the books by Silvana La Spina, Brunella Diddi, Paolo Roversi, Francesca Panzacchi, Silvana Giacobini, Maria Masella, just to point to those with new books out this year may all be worth a look.

    All the best,

    Sergio (Tipping My Fedora)

    • Many thanks for your response, Sergio! I wondered if my comments might prove contentious (though not quite as contentious as they have actually proven to be…).

      If you look closely at my review, you’ll see that my comments relate to a very specific part of Italy’s literary production (namely male-authored contemporary crime fiction), rather than the entire country’s output. I talk about an ’emerging pattern’ and ‘wonder’ if stereotyped representations of women are more present in Italian crime fiction than those of other countries (possibly due to market-forces for the genre in Italy). It’s an open question, and one that I think can be legitimately explored without resulting in sweeping assertions being made about any ‘national character’.

      I’d also add that there’s a whole other debate to be had about the still-dominant position of woman-as-victim in the detective-murderer-victim triangle in subgenres like the serial killer novel (though the balance between the three positions has clearly shifted a bit in the last few decades). The characters that I’m talking about (such as Ingrid and Angela) form part of the narratives’ subplots – they typically provide the male detective with a personal hinterland and don’t play a significant role in the crime narrative. So that’s another distinction that I guess needs to be made.

      Intriguingly, none of the other reviews I’ve read of the novel really pick up on the depiction of Angela – and I’m wondering if her representation is a bit of a blind spot precisely because she is not directly connected to the crime plot, or whether it’s just me who gets so heated under the collar when I see a female character depicted like this (perfectly possible)!

      Thanks very much for your author recommendations. Are these crime novelists? I will definitely check them out either way.

      All best wishes
      Mrs P.

      • Dear Mrs P,

        I may be wrong about this but of all the respondents to your post, I may be the only Italian and the only bloke, so I am 100% in minority in both counts. I am not sure that saying it’s not all Italians, just all Italian writers of crime fiction that are all sexist and misogynist, is any less frustrating to hear however. Some books are like that, some are not, just as in the UK, in France, in Spain, in Germany and the rest of Europe – at least that is my experience as a reader. As an Italian however, I am very used to to having people treat you as a second class citizen from a third rate country – and I definitely blame Berlusconi and his cronies for that. But that’s an accident of birth, and not my problem – it’s theirs.

        If I just mention 50 Italian crime books in which women are treated without sexism, does that invalidate your observation about this book? Hardly. It should make it possible to discuss the broader spectrum of the debate, but its the basis for it that is unprovable either way and which is why I wanted to draw attention to the basis from which it seems to spring. There are all kinds of Italians who write all kinds of books in all kinds of genres, in my experience anyway. Probably doesn’t help create any debate as a statement though, does it? One can one debate such huge
        blanket assertions?

        All the best,


      • Dear Sergio

        Many thanks for your response, which is very much appreciated precisely because of the valuable perspective you offer as an Italian man. It’s really important to hear as many viewpoints as possible on contentious issues like this, and I’m especially grateful for your contribution, as you’ve raised some very important and thought-provoking questions. I promise you that I will keep an open mind when reading further examples of Italian crime fiction by both male and female authors.

        I also very much hope that Berlusconi’s departure will lead to a significantly more positive era for Italy and its people.

        All best wishes
        Mrs P.

  3. Very nice review. I rather enjoyed this book but I thought the main character not that pleasant in several respects (not nice to his subordinate, etc) – but he does take the biscuit with his girlfriend, and I found the portrayal of her very flat. Like you, I loved the evocative descriptions of the river and the drowned villages, I also liked the old WW2 aspects, but for me there was too much driving back and forth between towns, asking the same people the same questions, for it to be among the elite of crime novels. There really does seem to be something about Italian male authors……(eg the latest Carofiglio, an author whom I’d previously found to be an honourable exception in the sexist attitude stakes, but no longer – all the more disappointing when the sexism is about very young women, barely out of their girlhood).

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Maxine. Like you I had a rather mixed reader-response to the novel, and I take your point about the narrative meandering a bit. The ending was also a little bit of a let down for me (not quite enough punch). But I loved the setting and that Varesi shows us a different Italy to most Italian crime novels. I found the closed world of the boatmen – and their expertise – made for fascinating reading. I haven’t read any Carofiglio yet, and I might make his (early) novels my next port of call…

  4. An interesting point you make there, Mrs P. Like Maxine, I have recently read the current Carofiglio (and I am way behind on writing blog reviews at the moment). Unlike Maxine, I have a kinder outlook on it. For a crime novel, it has a weak linear plot, but for me it was a rather engaging take on man’s middle-aged crisis. In this case the man is single and presented with a quite canny young lady, working to an agenda. He may be tempted, but he’s constantly checking himself with both she and the situation causing a major distraction. It’s a novel that carries internal conflict on almost every page and refreshingly, a different type of internal conflict normally served up in crime novels with lone (or relatively lone) protagonists. I can’t comment on your suggestion of trend as I have read so few translations of Italian crime novels from male authors (or female). But after your prompt, I will certainly be keeping an eye open, Mrs P.

    The Varesi sounds pretty good. One for a break from my reading of debut authors I think. When I can find that moment…

    • Actually it was not that aspect of the plot that bothered me – that’s just normal sexism. What I hated was the main character thinking that the “madam” had not deserved her prison sentence because the young teens who she’d procured for older men, were not harmed. That, together with the author’s approval of that point of view, made my blood boil.

  5. One last thing here: there is always something repulsive about a middle-aged man (and older) with a young woman. Sadly, we see so much of it in the tabloids still. I can think of one ageing rocker in reports in the British press only this weekend. But apparently the new GF will be OK for pressies as following his divorce, he may have slipped significantly on the Sunday Times Rich List, but his previous GF did well on shopping trips. A part of ‘culture’ I can only find horrifying to consider when skimming news items.

    And in other news, I read that Italy is finally moving on to another PM tonight. Many will be celebrating both with and for the Italians I am sure. The anticipation has been immense. Good luck to Italy.

    • Thanks very much for this link, Karen. Yes, the lack of female Italian authors in translation is certainly problematic in terms of building up a full picture of contemporary Italian crime fiction. Baraldi’s name rings a bell (did she feature on BBC4’s Italian Noir programme or was that someone else?). Definitely one for the TBR pile, as it sounds like it’ll provide a very interesting contrast to the other Italian crime I’ve read thus far. Grazie!

  6. Like you I liked the atmosphere of this book but found the characters overall a bit flat. On the issue of the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction I haven’t read enough to comment sensibly though I too wonder about it from the few books I have read. Just finished Camilleri’s TRACK OF SAND and there’s a similar character there – she doesn’t have as big a role but seems to serve no other purpose that to offer sex in unusual places to the middle-aged protagonist – who then treats her like dirt for seducing him.

  7. I haven’t read River of Shadows and some of it intrigues me, like the lives of the boatmen, WW2 history, the politics, but, alas — I hate to hear of more sexist portrayals of women written by Italian men.
    I have to bite my tongue and check my annoyance when I read Camilleri’s books because I so like the Montalbano books. They are uneven; some just simply do not portray women decently — and I can’t loan these to women friends. Most would get too aggravated about the women characters.
    And I’m dismayed to hear about Carofiglio’s recent book. Thought he was safe, guess not.
    So it’s back to reading a steady woman author, Donna Leon, about Italy and she’s not even from there!
    What about Carlotta and Sciascia? Where are they about women characters?
    I think that this sexism is still in the culture. I mean, their “leader,” Berlusconi was repeatedly caught having parties with very young women — and he’s in his 70s — and some were underage.
    It was all over the media, and he still stayed on as the government’s top figure. Why wasn’t that challenged and why wasn’t he kicked out? Because this is embedded in the system and it’s accepted except by women’s organizations and advocates who did speak out on his behavior.
    And please don’t compare him with Mussolini, as bad as he is and he’s rotten on everything. I agree. After all, Mussolini deported thousands of Jews to the Nazi camps.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Kathy. I would still recommend River of Shadows as a read in spite of Angela. She’s a fairly peripheral figure, and it’s possible to just roll your eyes and jump over most of her sections to the more interesting main narrative. The atmosphere and sense of place were the best things about the novel for me, and outweighed Angela and her antics in the end.

      Thanks too for mentioning Carlotto and Sciascia as examples of other authors to check out – will do so!

      Berlusconi finally resigned last night – see the latest here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15710790
      Hopefully this will give Italy the fresh political start it so badly needs.

  8. Very interesting discussion! I have just started River of Shadows, but i just wanted to add my tuppence as i read a lot of Italian crime fiction (some of which fortunately doesn’t make it in translation) as well as being Italian. Also, a full disclosure is needed as i publish italian crime fiction in translation (hopefully the good ones!).
    Mrs P, i agree that a lot of Italian crime fiction has an outdated and sexist attitude to women, and i have read a lot of unnecessary and plain bad sex scenes. Without going into the sociological, I believe the main reason behind this is the misconception in Italy that you have to add sex to sell anything. Italians have indeed become so desensitised to sex everywhere that they don’t even notice it’s there.
    As for other Italian crime authors, i am working on a (long) blog post on a few of them. It is true that there are very few women crime writers in Italy and even fewer have been translated.
    As far as other Italian authors, i found Alfredo Colitto’s books very good (medieval setting), as well as the mentioned Sciascia and Carlotto (although very different from each other). If i can have a bit of shameless self promotion, A Private Venus by Scerbanenco, which will be out next summer, is a very good example of a strong female character – the book was originally written in the 60s and I believe it is very innovative in its perspective.


    • Thanks so much for your comment, Ilaria, which adds some very valuable new perspectives to the discussion. What you say is fascinating, particularly about market forces in Italy – this was precisely what I was wondering about in the course of my own reading, as the sexual content seems to be ‘bolted on’ to the crime narrative in such a clumsy way.

      Thanks for the recommendation of the Colitto novels, and the Scerbanenco. The latter sounds like an extremely interesting text, so will look forward to that coming out. And do drop us a link to your blog post!

      Best wishes, Mrs P.

  9. Great to hear from Hersilia Press on this issue. And with welcome comments.
    I would to read Italian crime fiction written by women. If only these books were translated and available over here in the States.
    I eagerly await such books.

  10. Pingback: Depictions of violence and women in crime fiction (with list of STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME) | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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