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16 september 2023

L'edera, "the ivy," in Grazia Deledda's 1908 novel is Annesa: servant, adopted daughter or figlia d'anima (in Sardinian terms) of the noble but ruined Decherchi family. Annesa is hopelessly in love with Paulu, the last male scion of the Decherchis. She will cling to him as ivy clings to a tree – until the tree collapses altogether.

L'edera spends about half of its 300 pages setting up the Decherchi family and its elaborately dilapidated estate. About 15 characters play various roles in the story, and as so often in Deledda's fiction, there's no "teller" narrator to sort them all out for the reader. One's picture of the extended family gets pieced together very slowly – and for me, as usual, with the help of a scratch-paper diagram that I kept amending.

Zio Zua, "un parente" (30) of patriarch Simone Decherchi, has come to the house to die, but it's taking longer than anyone figured. Meanwhile, the moribund Zua keeps a pile of securities under his pillow, even as the family goes further into debt. The simplest thing would be for Annesa to smother the old man. When she finally does, it's for naught. Paulu has managed to scrounge together some money. The carabinieri suspect foul play, and the lovers flee to different hiding places.

We follow Annesa to hers, and this is when – about 2/3 of the way through – Deledda's usually compelling plot construction begins to unravel. We stay with Annesa and her guilt, while we learn that the entire family, save Paulu, have been arrested and subjected to the third degree, while the authorities exhume Zua for an autopsy to see who killed him and how.

So much action gets reported at a distance that the device of isolating Annesa feels contrived. The talky priest, prete Virdis, goes out to remonstrate with Annesa and struggle for her soul. This is a convenient excuse for some Dostoevskyan dialogue. Annesa shuttles from hiding place to hiding place … she hasn't brought a change of clothes. This began to bother me. Eventually Annesa and the Decherchis are cleared of murder charges – unjustly, in Annesa's case – and Deledda concludes the novel with a perfunctory coda about the grey years that stretch ahead for her defeated characters.

L'edera is the eighth of Deledda's novels that I've read, and though it's the weakest of the eight, I did keep reading it all the way through. It's atmospheric; it captures "quest'arcana nostalgia che è nel carattere del popolo sardo" (110), that weird nostalgia in the Sardinian character, that to a large extent must have been the creation of Grazia Deledda herself.

Deledda, Grazia. L'edera. 1908. Nuoro: Il Maestrale, 2019.