The Madonna of the Mountains

Elise Valmorbida

The Madonna of the Mountains
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The Madonna of the Mountains

Elise Valmorbida

Winner of the Prize for Fiction at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

1923: Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk. Her father has gone to find her a husband. He’s taken his mule, a photograph and a pack of food: home-made sopressa sausage, cold polenta, a little flask of wine - no need to take water - the world is full of water.

It’s Springtime, when a betrothal might happen, as sudden as a wild cyclamen from a wet rock, as sweet as a tiny violet fed by melting mountain snow. There are no eligible men in this valley or the next one, but her father will not let her marry just anyone, and now, despite Maria’s years, she is still healthy. Her betrothed will see all that. He’ll be looking for a woman who can do the work. Maria can do the work. Everyone in the contra says that. And the Lord knows Maria will need to be able to work. Fascism blooms as crops ripen, the State craves babies just as the babies cry for food. Maria faces a stony path, but one she will surely climb to the summit.

In this sumptuous and elegant novel you will taste the bigoli co l'arna, touch the mulberry leaves cut finer than organdie, and feel the strain of one woman attempting to keep her family safe in the most dangerous of times.


Set in the Veneto region of northern Italy, this novel about life in rural Italy between the 1920s and 50s is compulsively beautiful. It opens with a young woman, Maria, waiting for her father to bring home a husband for her – preferably one undamaged by the war. Achille is strong, handsome and relatively unscathed. Together they make a life and family together, but beneath that are the undercurrents of a society in upheaval as the Fascists take hold and families are divided, or, worse, do and say nothing.

Both Achille’s and Maria’s secrets end up tormenting them in what is becoming an abusive union, but when Achille is denounced as a black-marketer and then imprisoned, Maria enters a pact with her Fascist cousin that obsesses her. This is a finely drawn portrait of a society in transition, and of one woman’s desperate attempts to hold together her family. Elise Valmorbida has managed to create a very powerful and compelling book.

Mark Rubbo is the managing director of Readings.

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