Pieta
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Pieta

Michael Fitzgerald

These are the last days of 1999. At St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as the world waits for the new millennium, Lucy, a young Australian woman looks up at Michelangelo’s Pietà behind its pane of bullet-proof glass; a red kabbalah string circles her wrist. She has come with the mysterious parcel her recently deceased mother asked her to bring to the box marked POSTE VATICANE.

But before Rome there is Saint-Cloud. Here, on the outskirts of Paris, Lucy works as an au pair for Jean-Claude and his wife Mathilde. When Mathilde leaves for Central Australia to research the Aboriginal artist Kumanjayi, Lucy’s circle of contacts becomes smaller and strangely intimate: Jean-Claude, the baby Felix for whom she cares, and the couple’s charismatic friend Sébastien, a marble restorer. Yet Lucy’s homesickness for Australia and its vastness haunts her world, surfacing in the memories of her mother, the Australian garden at Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison, and Mathilde’s letters from Alice Springs.

Lucy’s mother, Jude, who was a nun in the 1970s, once warned her daughter ‘to be careful what she wished for'. It is a caution that marks but rarely alters the choices these characters make. With lushness and tenderness, and revelation, Fitzgerald’s unforgettable novel Pietà exquisitely captures the glorious and imperfect relationships between parents and children, between art and life.

Review

Michael Fitzgerald’s second novel, Pietà, introduces us to Lucy, a young art history student on a mission: she’s tasked by her recently deceased mother (a former nun in the 1970s) to deliver a mysterious parcel addressed to Vatican City in Rome. Before Rome however, to earn the money she needs to travel through Europe and fulfil her mother’s request, Lucy accepts an au pair position in Saint-Cloud, a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Paris. She is to care for baby Felix, while his mother, Mathilde, travels to Central Australia to complete her research on a local First Nations artist.

So begins a journey of self-discovery, complex emotions and intense homesickness for Lucy. After the departure of Mathilde, Lucy finds herself ensconced in an increasingly and strangely intimate triangular relationship with Jean-Claude (Felix’s father) and the couple’s charismatic friend Sébastien, a marble restorer. Lucy’s feelings about her role as au pair also become more and more conflicted – she feels true emotional attachment to Felix but chafes at the claustrophobia of the demands placed on her to care for such a young child. Her longing for home is further exacerbated by the things that surround her: the Australian garden at Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison residence, and Mathilde’s letters from Alice Springs.

Pietà feels very much like a vast expanse of a novel, artfully condensed into 251 pages. Much like the characteristic swirls and veins of marble, Fitzgerald weaves the complexity of human relationships, the great mysteries of love, religion, art and iconoclasm effortlessly throughout this intriguing read.


Tye Cattanach is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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