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The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

Untitled drawing.jpg“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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