Rome, 1943: A young Italian woman, Chiara Ravello, helplessly witnesses the mass roundup of the Jews in the ghetto. She makes eye contact with a mother loaded onto the trucks with her husband and two children, a toddler girl and a seven-year-old boy. Soundlessly they make a bargain. The mother pries the boy’s fingers off her sleeve. Chiara rushes forward and claims the woman’s son, shouting, “My nephew!”
Chiara is a born caretaker. Orphaned, resolved to spinsterhood following the death of her fiancé, she’s bravely assumed responsibility for her severely epileptic sister. Now she instinctively does the right thing by saving the life of this child although this “adoption” of Daniele Levi has profound consequences on the rest of her life. She devotes herself to her two charges, scrounging for food and shelter, loving and protecting them as a mother would.
The novel skitters back and forth in time from wartime to the 1970’s, skidding to a halt at times in between. Mostly, Baily recounts the story through Chiara’s point of view, though halfway through she switches to the outlooks of three other characters. The person we most want to hear from, of course, is Daniele, a deeply troubled young man, but the author elects to deny us access to his inner thoughts and struggles. As a child he is at first selectively mute; as an adult, he is denied a voice.
Chiara, her sister and Daniele escape to the countryside, to her grandparents’ beat-up cottage, where hungry, cold, and surrounded by German soldiers, they barely manage to survive, mostly due to luck and Chiara’s skill and creativity as a cook. They head back to Rome eventually until the conclusion of the war because there are more provisions and better shelter for them there.
Skipping to the present, we are shocked to learn that Chiara has not heard from Daniele for ten years. Apparently, Chiara has had other choices to make along the way, choices where she’s had no clear moral footing. Her love for Daniele is blinding maternal love, and eclipses all else. She cannot and will not lose him. Another character, her trusted friend, the priest, has chosen shaky moral ground himself, lying to her over the years, playing God by withholding crucial information, a choice he makes out of a desire to protect her from further distress.
Early One Morning is a beautifully written novel. Rome, then and now, is evoked in colorful detail, meaningful to even a casual tourist who recognizes the piazzas, monuments and shining vistas so lovingly described.
The plot is all-consuming: we’re driven to keep reading, anxious to know the fate of Daniele and the part that will be played by a mysterious young girl from Wales who stakes a claim in his story. Where Baily excels is in the portrayal of her characters.
Tempted to label them by their guiding traits—Chiara is Love; Daniele is Distress; Priest is Protection; Friend Simone is Acceptance, Maid Assunta is Faith, Girl Maria is Innocence—we stumble when their equivocal actions are revealed. Chiara, in particular, who we’ve grown to love, reveals a side to her personality which is deceptive, even heartless.
After the decision to spirit Daniele away from the Germans, she makes four momentous decisions that, when revealed, are quite disturbing. By Baily’s magic, we grudgingly accept that love dictated these choices, but where was her concern for the people she hurt?
We may be haunted by the what-if’s in this story, long after we put the book down. What a tribute then to Baily’s creation of multi-dimensional characters, who, like all of us, are a mixture of good and bad impulses and actions and whose lives bear witness to that complexity.
“Whoever saves a single life in Israel, Scripture regards him as if he had saved the entire world” (Talmud).
We are left with the knowledge that war has lasting repercussions that affect generations not yet born. Decisions and choices made under duress of war may not be totally comprehensible to those not affected. Baily has given us a wonderful multi-dimensional story, heart-wrenching at times, but alive and kicking and demanding our attention.
This novel by Virginia Baily, a British writer, hit the Sunday Times bestseller list in August and was dramatized on BBC Radio 4 in October. It was published in the US in late September and is being translated into 10 other languages.
Baily’s first novel, Africa Junction, set in Devon and West Africa, won the McKitterick prize in 2012. Her short stories and poetry have been widely anthologized. She’s the co-founder and editor of Riptide short story journal, based in Exeter and the editor of the Africa Research Bulletin.