'My House in Umbria’: a slice of the bel paese from an unreliable narrator

Do writers see the world through the lens of a potential story? Do they see other people through the lens of a potential character, perhaps guessing at the inner lives of their fellow passengers while riding a train? Would a writer in a first class train carriage to Milan, for example, observe a young couple sitting across the way and speculate about the the nature of their relationship, going so far as to imagine how they might have met and arguments they might have had? If that writer is anything like the narrator of William Trevor’s novel ‘My house in Umbria’, this is just what they’d do.   

The narrator of ‘My house in Umbria’, a former madam, now writer and hostess of a not-quite-b&b, not-quite-pensione in the countryside near Siena, calls herself Mrs. Delahunty but, as she tells us early on, that’s just one of many names she’s gone by. She’s honest, therefore, about her dishonesty. Early on, Mrs. Delahunty, or Emily (apparently her real name), is the victim of a likely terrorist bombing in a first class train carriage. As she lies in the hospital, she recalls the details of the bombing along with bits and pieces of other significant moments in her life. From this jumbled mess we quickly identify that despite the now-peaceful, even privileged life Emily leads, she has emerged from the darkness of exploitation and abuse. And if her preoccupation with the past is anything to go by, she hasn’t truly escaped.  

If she ever did try to forget, we can imagine that Quinty, her faithful manservant, would be more than happy to remind her. It was Quinty, ironically, who delivered her from her former life, which was going nowhere, and from an occupation that was slowly destroying her to a new home in a new country with a new identity and the discovery of a hidden talent: dreaming up other lives in other places as a writer of romance novels. Emily’s imagination has clearly been a great blessing, and yet it’s just the thing that makes her untrustworthy. We, as readers, can’t rely on her version of events to be any more than that: her version. This is true of any narrator, but in most cases the reader believes him or her to be telling the truth, while with Emily the truth comes to us through the reactions and responses of other, apparently more reliable characters.

‘My House in Umbria’ isn’t a light romp through the gorgeous Italian countryside in which it’s set, and it isn’t peppered with stock characters, romance, and loving descriptions of food. Yet it does transport the reader to an old villa in a bucolic setting in the Italian countryside where the guests, Emily’s fellow passengers and bomb victims, grieve all they lost in what Emily refers to as ‘the outrage’: a young German man mourns his fiance, an elderly English general grieves the loss of his daughter, and a young American girl, a child who lost both her parents and older brother in the bombing, lingers between shock and clarity, silence and tentative conversation.

Emily believes something—some compelling narrative, perhaps—is emerging from their shared tragedy. Might she discover an answer to the puzzle of who set the bomb off, and why?  Might she determine what is the purpose of their shared convalescence, their bonding after a tragedy? Or will the writer’s block plaguing her since the attack send her mind off to weaving imagined stories for the very real people around her?