The Almond Picker
By Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Translated, from the Italian, by Alastair McEwen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 314 pp., $23
Most countries have their south, and the relationship with the rest of the country is often fraught (idiosyncratic old England, of course, has its south in the north; the relationship is equally fraught). Italy's south is Sicily, a place where the past, as the man said, is not only not dead, it's not even past.
If Sicily is a land with long experience of invasion, accustomed to turning relationships of power on their head, it is also a land of subtlety, intelligence, and pride. The term ''sicilitudine" is used in Italian much as ''negritude" is used in French and English, to describe a long struggle to establish a sense of identity and dignity.
In ''The Almond Picker," a serving woman of humble origin turns the tables with cunning and determination and, in suitably Sicilian Gothic fashion, does so, adroitly and with cold determination, from beyond the grave. But the Gothic here is, if anything, Greek, and Moorish, and Mafia-ridden.
To reveal the details of how Maria Rosalia Inzerillo -- known as la Mennulara, a nickname that means ''almond picker" -- shows who wears the ectoplasmic pants in the family would mean undermining the novel's structure of suspense, though to be fair, only a fairly sleepy reader could fail to see the various plot devices coming from chapters away.
What is subtle, unnerving, and ultimately rewarding about the book is its central plot device: an epistolary chess match between the living and the dead. At each crucial strategic turning point, the living come a little closer to losing the match by following their own tragically wrong-headed instincts. And at each point, the dead woman has a new move awaiting them. The beauty of this progression is that with each maneuver, we gain a new appreciation for the almond picker's depth and acuity, and a deeper, appalled understanding of the inanity of the minds and lives of the Alfallipe family, her employers and masters on this side of the grave, but her helpless victims now.
The Alfallipes blame Mennulara for each of their foolish moves, but it becomes clear at the end that the dead woman is actually offering help, even salvation, to the Alfallipes. She had borne the brunt of their ill will during her life, and now, having done her best to help them from beyond the grave, she is again spurned. Her rejection qualifies her for a strange Christ-like symbolism, and yet the domestic setting and the clear class divisions made me think, oddly, of Kipling's ''Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," a story about a pet mongoose, a family favorite, the protector of the children's safety but also something less than human: in other words, a Sicilian peasant.
Each step in the process, moreover, echoes through the small inland mountain town of Roccacolomba, filtering through the complex and changing social structures of Sicilian society in the early 1960s. There is the Communist postal clerk, the local Mafia chieftain, the parish priest, the town doctor, and cousins, nephews, and relatives of every degree. It is rich, it is dark, and it is bitter.
And yet I came away from this book with a sense of disappointment. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's novel is touted as a bestseller in Italy, the winner of four international literary awards. And even here in America best-selling, award-winning books deal heavily in feel-good clichés, obvious turns of irony, edifying tales of triumphant underdogs, as does ''The Almond Picker." Part of this book's appeal in its original Italian is the strong Sicilian flavor of the setting, the language, and the dialogue. It is difficult, if not impossible, to translate those nuances, flavors, and accents, but I was also surprised at how poorly the translated English reads.
The translator, Alastair McEwen, is British, and Americans and Brits are, of course, two peoples divided by a common language. But I don't think that explains the text's peculiar flatness.
At a crucial moment, early in the book, the doctor hands over to the family a sealed envelope entrusted to him by the dying woman. One of the daughters says: ''It'll be the will." A great deal is riding on this document, and the response is clearly one of urgent interest, and yet, instead of ''That must be the will!" or ''Maybe that's her will!" or ''Could it be the will?" the translator has chosen an odd, offhand diction. Which perfectly mirrors the original Italian structure. When someone comments that the family has ''organized the funeral" instead of ''making funeral arrangements," again, the Italian seems to be dictating the translator's words, as is also the case when a character asks ''May I offer you something?" when what he meant was ''Can I buy you a drink?" Throughout, this flatness undercut my enjoyment of the book.
But this remains a story of grim determination and canny intelligence reaching back from the grave to offer a fatuous, inheritance-crazed family a series of choices between doing the right thing and receiving a good hard slap in the face. And nothing spares them the face slappings they so richly deserve. No amount of uninspired translating can undercut that kind of enjoyment.
Antony Shugaar is the translator, most recently, of two books by Carlo Levi, ''Fleeting Rome" (Wiley) and ''Words Are Stones" (Hesperus).