Joanna Scott is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” a term that typically means that her most ardent fans are fellow practitioners and that she is doomed forever to a small readership. Scott’s consummate skill may garner award nominations and prestigious fellowships, in other words, but her books are unlikely ever to rake in big Oprah bucks. Her new novel, Liberation, for example, is effortlessly readable and compellingly plotted, but it probably will not lift Scott’s profile, and that is a shame. For readers who do discover her, however, this book offers both sensual pleasures and brainy satisfactions.
Liberation opens with a 10-year-old girl, Adriana Nardi, hiding in a kitchen cabinet while Allied troops attack to free the Italian island of Elba from German occupation. Scott immediately plunges into Adriana’s mind, revealing her ignorance of the war, her imaginative flights and her provisional beliefs. The war has already broadened her conception of the possible: “It was possible that the war would never end. It was possible that she would never see the light of day again. It was possible that the entire island would be blown to pieces during the glorious liberation.” The story then jumps forward 60 years: Adriana has become Mrs. Robert Rundel and is riding a train from Rahway, N.J., into Manhattan, remembering stories she has told her family about the war years and, unknown to her, suffering from a pulmonary embolism. Moving seamlessly between Adriana’s past and present consciousness, this story of reminiscences courses with immediate vitality.
Scott presents the Allied liberation of Elba—and, metonymically, of Europe—in miniature, focused on the alliance between Adriana and a young Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, who is doing his best to avoid his French Colonial regiment. They first meet when Amdu, determined to survive the war without shooting anyone, saves Adriana from African troops, who are fighting for the Allies and whose “tout est permis” attitude includes the brutal rape of a young girl. Later, Adriana reciprocates by urging her family to take care of Amdu when he becomes feverishly ill. She believes that Amdu has mystical powers and may be a witch doctor; he believes that fate has drawn them together to help facilitate his becoming a modern-day saint. They communicate in French, neither’s native tongue, but both sense a deeper, spiritual connection.
Scott introduced her protagonist in a 2003 novel, Tourmaline, in which 22-year-old Adriana disappears under mysterious circumstances, leading some locals to suspect an American, Murray Murdoch, who has moved his family to Elba in order to mine the island’s gem deposits. In that novel, Adriana figures primarily as a conundrum for others to solve; in Liberation she takes center stage. No knowledge of Tourmaline is necessary to appreciate this new novel (though Scott makes sly references to the events of 1956, when, among other developments, Adriana met her husband), but Liberation will certainly inspire readers to go back to the earlier book.
For all of this novel’s external trauma and allusions to world-changing events, it is a story of interiors, detailing how it feels to get shot in the arm, begin puberty or find a newborn kitten. The joy in reading Scott is encountering convincing portrayals of the way other people think. She is at her best when following the flow of characters’ thoughts—not stream of consciousness, but a controlled rendering of mental patterns and linguistic tics. The focus of the narrative shifts among Adriana, Amdu and Adriana’s mother, Guilia. Scott gives each a distinct rhythm and diction, the effect being a Virginia Woolf-like treatment of characters more romantic than Mrs. Dalloway and events more fascinating than a trip to the lighthouse.
Adriana and Amdu share the instinct to think of their lives as ongoing tales involving dramatic conflicts that will culminate in happy endings. They want, in other words, to live good stories. After abandoning his regiment, Amdu justifies his actions by shifting the narrative: “In this current story he, Amdu Diop, wasn’t fleeing from pursuers,” he tells himself. “He was running toward the next chapter of his life.” In Adriana’s version of events, her efforts are part of the larger struggle for peace. “In her own small way, she was playing a part in that good story, a story that would be worth remembering. By helping the soldier who had helped her, she was aligning herself with those who were fighting to end the war.”
The war’s atrocity, with its constant threat of annihilation, is never far from the characters’ minds, so their thoughts often turn to survival. They know they want to live but struggle to rationalize why they, among so much destruction, should defy the odds. For Amdu, survival has nothing to do with cosmic justice, but only with animal self-interest. “He hated himself for wanting to survive. He had no right to survive. He and everyone else deserved to be dead. Life designed for destruction of life made no sense. The liberation made no sense. The rising sun made no sense.”
Scott makes good use of research, spotting the story with relevant tidbits about the Allied invasion, French colonial history in Africa, Elba’s mid-century social and economic dynamics, and the passage of an embolism through the pulmonary artery. But the spotlight remains on the inner worlds of characters experiencing a broad spectrum of intense emotions. Her exploration of consciousness bumps up against the limitations of language; when it comes to love, in particular, our vocabularies cannot encompass feeling, so we must resort to inadequate metaphors. Precocious Adriana learns how difficult it is to find correlatives to represent her love. “She wanted to see outside what she felt inside,” but the fruits and flowers near her house “were too familiar and ordinary to express what Adriana was feeling.” What Adriana cannot put into words Scott communicates indirectly, creating a textured portrait of this burgeoning consciousness during a time of life-changing crisis.
Liberation ends on a note of mystery, leaving crucial questions—does Amdu survive the liberation of Elba? does Adriana ever see him again?—unanswered. One hopes that this cliffhanger means that Scott intends to return to Elba and render more of that world for her readers, however small a clique they may be.