Lee Langley

Dangerous secrets: Verdigris, by Michele Mari, reviewed

A lonely teenager on holiday in Italy befriends his grandparents’ elderly gardener and slowly coaxes out his painful memories of betrayals and reprisals during the war

Michele Mari. [Getty Images]

In everyday life – on a garden path, flowerpot or lettuce – I back rapidly away from slugs. I didn’t expect to confront them in literature, but in Michele Mari’s Verdigris they are present in abundance, from the first line:

Bisected by a precise blow of the spade, the slug writhed a moment longer: then it moved no more… slimy shame transformed into splendid silvery iridescence. 

So, not a novel for one who shrinks from gastropod molluscs, you would think.

Yet I quickly found myself drawn into a remote corner of rural north Italy in 1969 where a lonely, bookish boy, Michelino, spends long summers with his emotionally unreachable grandparents. His only companion is Felice, the elderly handyman and gardener who wages ferocious daily war against the red slugs infesting the grounds. Speaking a slurred idiolect and scarred, ugly and illiterate, Felice is the unlikeliest of companions for a precocious 13-year-old who thinks in abstruse literary allusions. Michelino watches Felice at work, squeezing verdigris to a creamy paste as he prepares the seasonal spraying of the vines, his gnarled hands turning turquoise. ‘Ye see, Michelin, be like mashin p’lenta,’ he explains.

The boy decides to stimulate the old man’s unreliable memory with visual mnemonic cues to fugitive words. At first, it’s an amusing exercise to enliven the boring summer, but casual companionship leads to questions: where did Felice come from? What is his parentage? Curiosity deepens into friendship.

With Felice’s memory deteriorating fast, Michelino tries to pull him back from oblivion, revisiting a dangerous time when Italians and Germans were poised on shifting ground. Between partisans and Nazi collaborators, who could be trusted? Much lies below the surface here – mysteries, betrayal and violent death, all safely entombed in the past until the child starts digging.

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