This universally acclaimed novel--everywhere hailed for its evocative descriptions, its compelling characters, its intricate plot--transports us to Elba, an island off the northwest coast of Italy, in the mid-1950s. It is here that an American man, seduced by the wealth promised in the island's surfeit of semiprecious tourmaline, has traveled with his wife and four young sons, and now struggles to establish a homestead and a fortune. But the allure of one of Elba's other treasures--a bewitching local girl--derails his quest and threatens to destroy his family.
Napoleonic history, geology and a father's folly are woven together in this captivating novel by Scott (The Manikin; Make Believe). In 1956, extravagant, debt-ridden Murray Murdoch takes his wife and four young sons on a vacation to Elba, where he becomes convinced that he can profit from the island's abundant deposits of semiprecious gems. When the summer comes to an end and Murray still hasn't found the valuable tourmaline that he's looking for, the Murdochs decide to postpone their departure indefinitely. Their idyllic existence is shattered when a mysterious local girl goes missing and the community begins to suspect that the "investor from the United States" is somehow involved. The story is told by Ollie, the youngest of the four boys, who was five when the family arrived on the island and is 50 now. His memories are shaded by both a child's imagination and an adult's nostalgia, which allows Scott to explore some of the less straightforward aspects of the story. Entranced by the island's beauty, the boys communicate without speaking, and their mother, Claire, becomes uncharacteristically dreamy and distant. Murray's hunt for treasure grows increasingly desperate and futile, and finally, in an attempt to escape his responsibilities, he disappears on a three-day drinking binge. A few of Scott's departures from traditional narrative are tiresome, especially the pages devoted to the inner thoughts of an elderly British historian as he dies, but details of Elba's rich history, and particularly of Napoleon's exile there, are artfully woven into the narrative. This is an absorbing picture of a family rediscovering themselves in a foreign land.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Back Bay Books
October 01, 2002
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Excerpt from Tourmaline by Joanna Scott
OCTOBER 1, 1999
Water laps against the quay of Portoferraio. Hungry dogs blink in the sunlight. A grocer stacks oranges. A carabiniere checks the time on his wristwatch. A girl chases a cat into a courtyard. Men argue in the shade of an archway. A woman rubs a rag over a shop window. Heels click on stone. Bottles rattle in the back of a flatbed truck. A boy writes graffiti on the wall above the steps leading to the Liceo Raffaello. German tourists hesitate before filing into a bar. An old woman, puzzled to find herself still alive at the end of the century, sits on a bench in Piazza Repubblica, her eyes closed, her lips moving in a silent prayer to San Niccol�.
I have seen the faded frescoes of San Niccol# in the church in San Piero. I drove to this little enclave yesterday in search of a grotto that is supposed to be full of tourmaline. After wandering through the hills without finding the grotto, I returned to San Piero to explore the village and the deserted ruins of the Appiano fortress. The emptiness felt so complete that the shadow of a man on the granite wall startled me--my own shadow, squat in the light of late morning.
Inside the church, Niccol# has watched the world with knowing eyes for six hundred years. Bloodied Niccol#, who knows everything about everyone and will never be surprised.
When the earth's ancient fire cooled and shrank toward the core, it left behind a hard, uneven shelf of land along the west coast of the peninsula of Italy that was extraordinarily rich with minerals-- with hematite, magnetite, pyrite, quartz, agate, and tourmaline running in pure veins through the deep folds of metamorphic rock. Millions of years later, the fire inside the earth flared, tremors vibrated in the glaciers, and the Tuscan Archipelago broke away from the continent. Vents opened in mountain peaks. Basaltic lava flowed over the land. Rain cooled the lava into rock, storm winds wore the rock smooth, rivers cut channels, dust turned to soil, soil softened to fertile mud along the deltas. New forests grew, diverse species of plants and animals evolved. A unique species of poisonous snake made its home on Montecristo. Each island had its own kind of beetle. At one time, small brown bears lived in the caves of Elba, a prehistoric species of rhinoceros roamed the fields, and lynx hunted the newborn foals of wild horses.
Like all bodies of land, the island of Elba would continue to change. Everything on Elba would change, except the minerals. Deep inside the ground the minerals of Elba would remain what they were, pure, intact, untouched by measurable time.
At Pomonte, follow the road to the right of the church beyond the last of the village houses. Continue up the rise. At the fork, cross the little cement bridge and climb the granite steps to the mule track. Follow the track through the vineyards, keeping the stream to your left. Continue past the last vines and into the woods. Cross through a chestnut grove, go forward about a hundred meters, wade through the stream, cross a valley, and continue into another wood of white poplar and oak.
Eventually you will come to an old sheepfold and shepherd's cottage at the top of Grottaccia hill. If you look carefully at the dome of the cottage, you will see that no mortar was used. The skillful builders constructed the dome simply by putting one stone on top of another.
Four thousand years ago, a woman stood in the grotto of San Giuseppe and poured oil from a vase into a bowl. She crumbled dried rosemary into the oil and pounded it to make a paste. She rubbed the paste on the forehead of her sleeping child to take away his fever.
Three thousand years ago, two Greeks, who happened to be brothers, tended a smelting fire. When the burning wood suddenly popped and sparked, the brothers lurched back with a gasp. The fire burned on. The ore melted. The brothers laughed at their cowardice. They decided to name the island Aethalia after the sparking fires. They knew these fires would burn for centuries.