By one of the finest English writers of our time, a luminous memoir that travels from southern Italy to the banks of the Nile, capturing a lost past both personal and historical.
Marina Warner’s father, Esmond, met her mother, Ilia, while serving as an officer in the British Army during the Second World War. As Allied forces fought their way north through Italy, Esmond found himself in the southern town of Bari, where Ilia had grown up, one of four girls of a widowed mother. The Englishman approaching middle age and the twenty-one-year-old Italian were soon married. Before the war had come to an end, Ilia was on her way alone to London to wait for her husband’s return and to learn how to be Mrs. Esmond Warner, an Englishwoman.
Ilia begins to learn the world of cricket, riding, canned food, and distant relations she has landed in, while Esmond, in spite of his connections, struggles to support his wife and young daughter. He comes up with the idea of opening a bookshop, a branch of W.H. Smith’s, in Cairo, where he had spent happy times during the North African campaign. In Egypt, however, nationalists are challenging foreign influences, especially British ones, and before long Cairo is on fire.
Deeply felt, closely observed, rich with strange lore, Esmond and Ilia is a picture of vanished worlds, a portrait of two people struggling to know each other and themselves, a daughter’s story of trying to come to terms with a past that is both hers and unknowable to her. It is an “unreliable memoir”—what memoir isn’t?—and a lasting work of literature, lyrical, sorrowful, shaped by love and wonder.