VALERIA’S LAST STAND
By Marc Fitten (Bloomsbury)
978 1 4088 0022 5 • trade pbk
978 0 7475 9870 1• Hbk
By the standards of modern taste we ought not to sympathise with the protagonist, Valeria. An outcast of the Hungarian village of Zivatar she is gruff, fat, unkempt in unflattering clothes and, at 68 years old, definitely not dwindling into her dotage. But one day, while haranguing the stallholders at the market, she notices the potter for the first time. She falls in love.
They bumped into one another very soon after his last visit to her cottage. It was in the belly of the same market where they had first met. Valeria had gone back to work inspecting stalls and was haranguing market vendors with a vengeance. If she appeared to have softened in the days immediately following her involvement with the potter, now she was harder than ever. Emotions were not necessarily spilling out of her, but alone at home she had begun to grow a little stir-crazy. The prospect of romance late in life had never occurred to her before the potter, but now it was all she could think about. Secretly, or not so secretly, Valeria really wanted a man to call on her. At first she really wanted the potter to call on her, but after time, she started looking at other men in the village and she noticed that most of them were single again, cuckolded by death. She wondered if they were as lonely as she was.
The style and structure is fairy-tale-like but it’s not a modern fable. Male characters are named through their profession, such as, the butcher, the potter, the mayor, the chimney sweep (who brings bad luck) and so on. But this is not ‘lit-light’. The narrative is immersed in irony and symbolism. Seemingly untouched by historical events and past revolutions, their impact is felt within the village and Valeria’s sexual awakening is set against a backdrop of rising capitalism.
The characters grow gradually with their individual and collective life-stories related through village gossip as the story slowly builds to an exciting climax on the slopes of the Hungarian Alps. This is a very well written, well-paced, multi-layered novel that plays with our emotions. Laugh out loud moments move quickly to pathos and even, at times, descend to the bathetic. The skill of the novel is in the whimsical tone of hope that hovers just above the pathetic lives of the characters as they travel uncertainly into the uncharted territory of love.
Read the full review in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5542 (June 19 2009), p. 22 – see also Newbooks Review Directory.