A year in Italy inspires a book, but it's not all praise, notes Nicky Pellegrino.
There's a formula to travel memoirs like this one. First you go to stay in some foreign locale, preferably in rural France or Italy. Then you write colourfully about the ups and downs of dealing with the locals and their funny customs, while scattering through a few facts and some culture.
Sicily, It's Not Quite Tuscany by Shamus Sillar (Allen & Unwin, $29.99) sticks pretty faithfully to that method, but what is different is that Australian Sillar didn't opt for some rustic idyll for his literary OE. He didn't live the dream of restoring a palazzo or growing olives. Instead he chose to settle in Catania, one of the largest and liveliest cities in Italy's deep south.
Unemployed and a newlywed, Sillar decides to spend a year in Sicily with his wife Gill, seeing it as an extended honeymoon - she to teach English, him to write a history book. But nothing turns out the way they had imagined. Their apartment is a slum beside the headquarters of a fascist gang of football fans, a vegetable vendor with a loudhailer wakes them at 6am each morning, traffic thunders past their windows, the ancient monuments are covered in scaffolding and in no time at all Mt Etna is staging a one-in-150-year eruption and ash is raining down on them.
Sillar has an ironical writing style as well as a sense of adventure. He hikes past police roadblocks to see the rivers of lava for himself, risking his life and nearly getting arrested. He is equally intrepid when it comes to trying food - spleen sandwich anyone? He plunges in rather than waits for life to unfold around him and the book is more interesting for it.
He's observant, funny and knowledgeable - with a PhD in Roman history, he's the right person to guide us around Sicily's ancient ruins. My one complaint is he's awfully glass-half-empty. Sure, he and Gill have a few setbacks in the year - she crashes a Vespa, their friends have a laptop snatched - but this city has been covered in lava several times in its history and razed to the ground by an earthquake. Today it suffers more than its fair share of poverty and crime. So they did pretty well, considering.
Sillar voyages beyond Catania: taking in the tourist sights of Taormina and Cefalu, driving the island's southern coastline, checking out a ruin here and a town there. Almost constantly he finds something to be disappointed in. It's not that he's relentlessly critical. He meets neighbours he warms to, eats dishes that please him, visits nice beaches, but it's clear he didn't fall in love with Sicily.
Sillar's memoir is fun, informative and always interesting but I'd be surprised if it left you yearning to visit a place he somewhat grudgingly concludes "can be majestic on a good day".