Authors: Nino Ricci
In a Glass House
“Brilliant.… Assured and perceptive.… Few will come away unaffected by his insight into human personality or unimpressed by his articulate, analytical – but never artificial – style.”
magazine (five-star review)
“This is a deeply sensitive, spiritual book.… Ricci has written a profound essay on the human soul.”
“Lyrical, evocative … a compelling and rich tale.”
“Ricci turns the dross of domestic drama into something fluid and haunting, rich and strange. So shrewd and discriminating are his observations that he has managed to write a novel as impalpable and intricate as life itself.”
“Impressive.… Brimming with energy and vitality.… Marvellous.
… In a Glass House
In a Glass House
is an important contribution to the literature of ‘otherness’ – describing the alienation felt by immigrants to a new land.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“Ricci is an accomplished novelist.”
BOOKS BY NINO RICCI
Lives of the Saints
In a Glass House
Where She Has Gone
The Origin of Species (2008)
Pierre Elliott Trudeau (2009)
Copyright © 1993 by Nino Ricci
Cloth edition published 1993
First trade paperback edition published 1994
This e-book edition published 2015
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication data is available upon request.
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-7710-7657-2
SERIES EDITOR: ELLEN SELIGMAN
Cover design: Terri Nimmo
Cover image: Karen Beard / Photonica
Series logo design: Brian Bean
McCelland & Stewart,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House Company
for Jan and Gary Geddes
and for Peter Day
“And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ ”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment
La megghiu giuvintù tu rruvinasti
Christopher Columbus, what have you done?
You’ve ruined the best of our young.
– Calabrian saying
The town of Mersea rested on a small bluff that looked out over the shores of Lake Erie; and had the waters of that lake not reversed their flow from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence when some cataclysm of nature opened up the Niagara Gorge, the few acres of raised land on which Mersea sat might have remained an island, cut off from the mainland by ten or fifteen miles of shallow lake. Even still, much of the land around Mersea had had to be reclaimed from the marshes, the country roads that lined the lakefront on the eastern side of the township, toward Point Chippewa, raised up on twenty- or thirty-foot dykes; and after the thaw and heavy rains of spring you could drive down those roads and have the strange, thrilling experience of seeing the lake on one side higher than the land on the other, only a man-made ridge with sides sloping at smooth forty-five-degree angles holding back tons of water from seeking their own level.
Highway 76 formed the spine of the township, St. Mary’s, over which Mersea presided, known despite its muddy winters
and springs as the Sun Parlour. It came down from the big divided highway to the north and cut through the centre of town, intersecting Highway 3, the old Talbot Road, to form the town’s four corners before ending finally at the lake, where it was extended a few hundred yards into the water by the Mersea dock. The concession roads came off Highway 76 with a Euclidean regularity, as if some giant had merely taken a great pencil and ruler in hand and divided the wilderness into a tidy grid. In Italy the roads had snaked and curved to the rhythm of the land like a part of it, but here it seemed the battle against nature had been fiercer, the stakes higher, the need to dominate more complete. Only two roads broke the pattern – the old Talbot Road, which weaved in and out among the concessions, sometimes following at a distance the curve of the lake, sometimes veering suddenly north or south without apparent reason, conforming to some forgotten agenda of its original builders; and the lakeshore-hugging Highway 13, which from the west connected up a string of lakeside communities before dipping down into the Point and ending abruptly at the entrance to Point Chippewa National Park.
The first Italians in Mersea, from before the war, had bought up farms on the lake, along the stretch of highway known as the Seacliff because of the fifty- or sixty-foot rise that ran along the shore there. Other Italians had settled around them as around a nucleus, along the lakeshore itself or north of it where the Talbot Road, coming west out of town, rose up along the Ridge, the remnant of a former shoreline that followed the Seacliff at a distance like its shadow. But my father had bought a farm further north and east, on the 3rd Concession. We were the only Italians then who lived east of Highway 76, until the Massaccis, a year or so later, bought a farm on the 12 & 13 Sideroad; and though
by road we were only four or five miles out of town, could see from our back field the weathered wall of the Sun Parlour Canning Factory, with its ad for Caporal cigarettes, the pink brick and white clapboard gables of the houses on the town’s outskirts, the stucco tower of St. Michael’s church, still the farm seemed remote and forgotten, like a place cut off from the world. It was strange to see so many houses spread out across the countryside the way they were along those concession roads, each one separate and discrete, set off in its own tiny realm as if in enmity; and in that flat landscape, with no point from which you could hold the world in a glance, you got no sense of where things stood in relation to one another, only of endless, random repetition, the openness pressing down on you, holding the world back. When visitors came to see us during my first weeks on the farm, it seemed in my seven-year-old’s dim imagining that they could not have reached us by anything as simple as a road but must have bridged a strange chasm as wide and blank as the sea.
Those first weeks in Mersea were like a journey through fog – objects seemed to emerge like phantoms, shimmer briefly into focus, fade away. People too: the strange half-familiar faces of the
who came to visit us, sullen and restrained as at a funeral; my father. When he’d come for me in Halifax after the crossing, the two of us, face to face then on the long train ride in, while the baby sat apart in its hamper like some parcel to be delivered, he had seemed after his five years’ absence from my life like someone who had nothing to do with me, who was outside of me like a stranger, who I had to think about, be awkward with, only because I was sitting beside him. But more and more it began to seem that some shadow surrounding him took me in too, that he was not just outside but inside me somehow, so I could not see how things were now except through his shadow.
Sometimes, during those first weeks, I would wake suddenly in the middle of the night and for a moment, in the darkness, feel a disorientation so complete that I might never have known what a world was, or a bed or a chair. My mind in that instant seemed to mirror exactly the darkness of the room around me, seemed to contain no thoughts, no past, only a sudden panic and terror; and it was only when I could put together a little story in my head, a boat, a train, until I arrived finally at the bed I was lying in, that the room around me slipped into dim focus, and the panic passed. I thought then that the blackness I fell into on those nights must be like death, that I had dreamed of being dead, because sometimes, afterwards, I could remember an image of myself closing my eyes and sinking into a sleep as dark as the sea; though it was never the moment I closed my eyes that frightened me but the moment I opened them, when I emerged again into everything strange and new and forgotten, as into the sudden horror of being born, or born again.
My father’s land, about thirty acres in all, was split part way up by a creek that wound its way through the farms on the 3rd Concession, the land on either side sloping gently down to it to form a tiny valley. Beyond the creek was open field, indistinguishable from the other fields that flanked it, whatever private history it might have had revealed only in the occasional arrowhead or fossil that the plough churned up in the fall. But the front part of the farm, with its strange buildings and variations, the cavernous barn and kiln, the irrigation pond, the greenhouses with their white wooden frames and their weed-choked alleys, the coal-dust-filled boiler room, was its own little world, as compact and multifaceted as the tiny villages, often merely the centuries-long elaborations of single families, that had clung like outcroppings to the rocky slopes around Valle del Sole. When I first arrived at the farm its tidy arrangements, the trees that rose leafless in an orderly row along the edge of the driveway, the little courtyard formed by the house and garage and kiln, made it seem like something in a picture, without dimensions, unreal; it might
have been set out by some titan child, who had simply placed this tree here, this house, this red barn, like so many giant toys. The roofs of the greenhouses then were covered with a thin crust of snow that made me think of sugar, though here and there the snow was cut away in perfect dark squares – I thought the squares must form some kind of pattern or code, but they were only spots where the glass had broken, and the snow had fallen through.