Opening on a bitterly cold, snowy night in January 1914, A WINTER'S NIGHT follows the Brunis, an Italian peasant family, through the first half of the twentieth century.
Theirs is a story of life in tune with the cycles of the seasons, of hardship and resilience, and the story of the most turbulent years in Italy’s recent history. When the Brunis throw their stable open every night as a warm refuge, travellers bring in news and kindle old legends. These enchanting folktales and the superstitions passed down generations are interwoven with the daily struggles of farming life, taking the reader away to a time of simple traditions and values.
Manfredi’s storytelling shifts from these pastoral scenes to war as he conducts the nine Bruni children and their grandchildren alternately through the first world war, the second world war and the rise and fall of fascism. Their quietly affecting experiences creep up on the reader, cementing compassion for the Brunis as we see them tossed about in a believable and human portrait of war.
In between the wars, the ebbs and flows of peasant life – love and rejection, marriage, sickness, madness, murder and death – continue in an endless cycle. A WINTER'S NIGHT owes much to the Sicilian nineteenth-century realist author Giovanni Verga’s Il Malavoglia or The House By the Medlar Tree, the first of his projected series Il Coclo Dei Vinti or The Cycle of the Conquered, in its choral depiction of a lower class family. Manfredi echoes Verga’s themes, portraying social and economic stasis – the impossibility of escaping one’s lot. It is inevitably frustrating to see that when the opportunity arises to finally own the land the Bruni family has farmed for over a century, jealousy and petty family rivalries seal their fate to remain simply workers of the land. With the many losses and scattering of the Brunis this closes on a melancholic note, with a hopeful reminder that their stories will continue to be kept alive.
As a sweeping social and political study, this crams in a huge amount over an ambitious timeframe. Though Manfredi’s plotting sometimes reads transparently, as if using his wonderful characters as puppets to tick off pivotal historical events, he succeeds in drawing an engaging portrait of life in Italy at a time of momentous change. A page-turning, enjoyable if unchallenging read, this charms the reader with its many timeless folktales and eclectic cast of characters.