When Jan Vidor, the narrator of Valerie Martin’s immensely satisfying new novel, arrives at the grand Villa Chiara near Siena in the summer of 1983, she knows nothing of its history, and little of its aristocratic owners: she is looking for a quiet place to research a new book she is planning, to be set in the era of Mussolini, and has no intention of being sidetracked by curiosity. But that, as any writer who has visited Italy on a deadline could have told her, is easier said than done.
A novelist and an academic at an American university, Jan is thus far a safe bet as avatar for the prizewinning Martin herself – though this assumption, as so many in this beautifully fractal novel, is challenged and unpicked as the narrative progresses. Jan knows only the name of a fellow academic, the glamorous fiftysomething Beatrice Salviati, from whom she is renting the Villa Chiara’s orangery. From her terrace in the limonaia, with “access to scenes no one else saw”, Jan is both on the edge of things and screened from view: the ideal novelist’s vantage point. She cannot stop herself from making notes, not on Mussolini but on her setting: the meals, the landscape, “the sweet sound of doves cooing”, the great house she overlooks and most importantly the comings, goings and secretive doings of the Salviati family.
Thus when Beatrice arrives a week into her stay and proceeds with coolly elegant amusement to bestow both friendship and stories from the Villa Chiara’s history – of mysterious violent death, of madness and war and love and exile – there is little hope for Mussolini and every prospect of a melodrama of the Italian nobility emerging from the notes Jan sketches out on her terrace. “Do you like it?” says Beatrice, of her first anecdote. “I give it to you.” Which Jan perceives as generosity, but which has another implication: that the story is not hers to take.
Slyly, seductively, teasingly, extended over a friendship that lasts a decade and more, Martin’s novel threads together Jan’s beguiled interpretation of her hostess’s life – Beatrice’s childhood in wartime Florence; her escape to America and her doomed marriage; her cousin’s torment at the hands of his fascist father; her mad uncle’s incarceration and his death on the steps of the Villa Chiara – and embeds it in a wider narrative that includes a leisurely, amused analysis of the creative process and its ongoing battle with the intrusions and outrages of “real life”, the daily existence that is banal and demanding and – just occasionally – stranger than fiction.
There are several games to be played here around the mental gymnastics of the novelist’s life, and all of them are enjoyable. Jan – eager, talkative, forever off on tangents – falls in love, as so many have before her, with a culture more exotic and more apparently exciting than her own. She is so involved in her own imaginings that she overlooks the casual dramas playing out discreetly, stage left: the servants quietly conniving to become masters, the infatuations and seductions and the grasping relatives.
There are the plot puzzles to be solved: the unmasking of the guilty – the traitor, the murderer, the liar – the rooting out of the most intimate secrets, the working out what is “truth” and what Jan cannot possibly know. There is the tension, always, between reality and fiction: however insistently Jan spins her gossamer spell around Beatrice, the Italian remains an enigma; however longingly Jan gazes at the blue Tuscan horizon she will always be interrupted by burst pipes, and the need to meet a deadline for the novel that no longer interests her. There is, too, the vexed question of ownership, and of how far the creative intelligence can, may, or must wrest control of actual lives and turn them to its own purpose in the name of art.
But finally and in answer there is the pure pleasure of the stories themselves, that are neither Beatrice’s nor Jan’s, but that thing called fiction. At once braced and embraced by their sturdy frame of ironical, philosophical and creative inquiry, cleverly plotted and packed with great characters, both Jan’s creative struggles and her beautifully wrought stories of the Salviati family lift themselves effortlessly free of their source material, whatever or wherever that may be. They demonstrate the enchanted moment when words on a page rise by virtue of the alliance of a mysterious grace and sheer hard work, and create magic.
• Christobel Kent’s The Viper is published by Corvus. I Give It to You by Valerie Martin is published by Serpent’s Tail (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.