Tourmaline: A Gem by Joanna Scott
J. Gordon
12/4/2002 11:41:07 AM

For those readers who enjoy literary fiction and all it can achieve, Tourmaline [Little, Brown] will fit the bill. Veering deftly from omniscient to first person narration and back again, it’s the story of a family fleeing debt and failure in the United States to live on the Italian island of Elba, where the father, Murray Murdoch, was once stationed in the war and returns with the unrealistic hope to make a quick fortune in the semi-precious gem, tourmaline (which turns out to be a great metaphor on so many levels). The family is along for the bumpy ride, which takes a strange turn when the village blames Murray for the disappearance and presumed death of a village girl, Adriana Nardi. Murray, who is so full of drink, self-pity, and poor judgment, isn’t sure whether he’s guilty or not.

The writing is stunning. We see Elba and all its magic, through the eyes of his children who create their own mixture of Italian and English that only they can comprehend. They find themselves so linked that at points even words are unnecessary, even the sense of hearing is no big deal. We feel the disappointment of his wife, Claire, the aimless drifting and escapism of their lives, and the humiliation of their first-class habits under the weight of their debt.

Tourmaline is a thoughtful, experiential book, and Scott takes chances with language, guiding us out blindfolded at times; confused, wondering, and wandering in the head of each of her characters:

Signor Americano set out walking. There were no stars out, and the cloud bed was a smoky gray and swallowed the top of the mountains. The breeze carried the puckering fragrance of grapes. A quick rainstorm had passed through an hour earlier, and the ground, dry for months, was springy.

Signor Americano was going away. Somewhere. Nowhere. Direction contingent upon absence. Our father had no particular route in mind. He just wanted to get away. Go on, Dad, we won’t mind. Just be back by morning, okay? But how could he go back to the mess he’d left behind? A man decides to walk away from his family—one step after the other. His value contingent upon nothing, scarcity being the measure of worth. Signor Americano would make himself scarce for his family’s sake. And go where? Home? Home was bankruptcy—money increasing in worth with rarity. Home was the Averils and humiliation. Home was the past, the absence of the here and now.

If not home, then…

Read Tourmaline for the story, of course, but read it also for the rich secrets of life it holds and the incredible, sensual imagery. The Italian seaside may be just the thing on a cold winter night.


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