Toscanelli’s Ray

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This review was contributed by Roderick Vincent.

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Toscanelli’s Ray
Wallis Wilde-Menozzi
Cadmus Editions, April 2013
345 pages
$16.95

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi lived in the U.S. and England before moving to Italy in 1981. Perhaps it is this confluence of international perspectives that enlighten the philosophical elements latent in her writing. After publishing Mother Tongue, a memoir, the frequently published poet now explores truth-telling in the freer form of narrative, in her debut novel Toscanelli’s Ray.

The book is set in Florence, Italy. Florence itself is like a scarred face in the narrative, a maiden afraid to gaze into the mirror, and it is Wilde-Menozzi who drags her into the light to show her she is still beautiful. Yet the heart of any city is essentially its people, and the exploration into larger realities within both is a fascinating trail to understanding flickering motes of the human spirit.

Among the many characters in Wilde-Menozzi’s book is Milli, an immigrant from Nigeria who was promised a better life in Italy. When she arrives, however, she is thrown into a prostitution ring, and after she is arrested for solicitation, her three-year old daughter Farina is in danger of being sold to a child trafficker by Milli’s pimp. Milli’s friend wises up to the situation and flees with Farina, finally abandoning her at a convent. When Milli is released by the authorities, she eventually finds Farina there and is forced to confront her doubts about what is best for her child’s future.

Meanwhile, sand therapist Susan Notingham discovers an Etruscan relic buried in her backyard. Ignoring a law against tampering with historic artifacts (“a crime against the past”), Susan begins to dig. The excavation is a metaphor for Susan’s turbulent life, seeking out that which is buried. By contrast, her ex-husband Luigi sees Susan’s work as “a joke,” even though Luigi himself, a character embracing the machismo Italian code even while simultaneously rejecting it, is perhaps most in need of his own sandbox in which to dig. He cannot tell his new love Maria Grazia how he really feels, and a phoniness lurks within him beneath his serious intellectual shell.

Wilde-Menozzi’s characters are as delicate as porcelain dolls; the reader hopes they won’t break. The story has the sort of passion one finds in a jaded lover, harsh and tender, dynamic, and always provocative. Each paragraph reads as if it is a brick in La Sagrada Familia, a contribution to a modern architecture that neither finishes nor leaves one empty. A salvation exists in Wilde-Menozzi’s writing akin to Toni Morrison lyricism, and shades of DeLillo appear with her philosophical undertones.

Throughout it all, Florence itself is a European Bronx similar to Underworld, the modern world juxtaposed against the old and buried. Where is the heart of Italy?  The question rings like a church bell at the center of the narrative.

Roderick Vincent is the author of the forthcoming Minutemen series.  His short fiction has been published in StrayLight and Offshoots.  He is a committee member of the Geneva Writers Group in Geneva, Switzerland.