Last year’s surprise publishing sensation was the debut novel by American author Stuart Turton “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” which won the Costa First Novel Award and climbed up bestseller lists as well as appearing on a considerable number of “Best Of The Year” lists. I haven’t read it yet but anticipate a time-bending novel along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” which I loved. We all know that from the very early days of publishing there’s nothing like a surprise success to start off the bandwagon jumping and I couldn’t help but feel that this might be the case when I saw the title of this debut by another American author (even more so when you consider Turton’s US title for his novel is “The Seven and A Half Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle”). This may just all be coincidence but I’m doubtful.
There was, however, something about the description of this novel which appealed and hopefully that potential cash-in of a title will not hinder its chances in the marketplace. Unlike “Life After Life” these are not actual deaths anyway but near-death experiences for the main character, a woman with undoubted survival instincts and these experiences provide the structure of the book. It actually needn’t as this is one of the weakest aspects of the story. Before publication I would have made these near-death encounters less prominent and just titled the novel “Stella Fortuna” allowing it to stand more on its own merit rather than on the coat-tails of another title. It would have also ended up with something which would have felt more self-contained and original.
This novel does not need this hook. It works very well on its own as a tale of the long-living Stella Fortuna and her family from sun-soaked days in a village in Calabria, Italy, to their emigration to the US just before World War II and their experience of life over the decades as an American-Italian immigrant family narrated by her grand-daughter.
The Italian section does feel a little unsure of itself in terms of style. At times it reads almost like a fairy tale with whimsical touches borne out of the superstitions of the simple mountain folk. I quite liked it but I’m a little allergic to anything too whimsical. Once it gets to America it feels more realistic and at times disturbingly hard-hitting, even brutal in its writing. As a result I’m not totally convinced Juliet Grames has found her style consistently with this debut. It did occur to me at one point that it might be a translation into English and that the translator did not quite get the author’s voice quite right, but it’s not.
However, she did keep me reading and that was because of strong characterisation. Stella will undoubtedly frustrate and irritate, she has a stubborn streak and lives her life attempting to avoid what she does not want rather than going after what she actually wants. She is haunted by these near-death experiences and her belief that they are to do with incidents from before she was born. Her parents, her mother taken away from the simple life she loves and her disturbing macho father are equally well drawn as are many of those who come into Stella Fortuna’s life over the generations. As a family story it works very well. I just can’t help thinking that the title might hold it back implying it is something that it’s not and forcing unnecessary comparisons. This is a strong, memorable debut but I do feel with a slightly different emphasis, viewpoint and a more consistent style it could have been first-rate.
The Seven Or Eight Deaths Of Stella Fortuna is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback on May 7th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.