book: Nightingale, Peter Dorward

Peter Dorward’s Nightingale is a truly beautiful tale, both in language and story.  Not beautiful in a pink ribbons sense, but with a harsh, sometimes almost brutal directness.  Dorward is a Scot, so perhaps the image of whisky is pertinent.  Certainly not a liquor like limoncello, strong beneath but covered over with sweetness, like aspects of the Italy Dorward portrays, but like a South-East Islay Malt, a smoke-tar flavour that almost makes you gag and yet all the richer for its lack of compromise.

Nightingale, takes us into Italy’s “Years of Lead” (Anni di piombo), the period of political terrorism from left and right that left  thousands dead, and in particular the 1980 railway station bombing in Bologna, which killed eighty five one hot holiday morning.  This is hardly an easy topic to deal with.  The jacket describes the novel as a ‘literary thriller’, but it is at heart about people: the almost comic, but bloody, naivete of political extremism, and the tenuous glory of love.

Although, the central character in the novel is Scottish, and the protagonists include a German Baader-Meinhoff acolyte and an Egyptian bartender, Italians and Italy form not just the backdrop, but permeate the pages of Nightingale. Dorward describes Italy with sensitivity and straightforwardness, and I think loves the country and the people in the same way I have come to; yet aware of the dark undercurrents that often underlie the Formica-tabled pizzeria and high fashion boutiques.

I recall a  few years ago seeing flowers around a plaque on the wall, just opposite the entrance to the University of Rome “La Sapienza” in via Salaria.  I had been visiting occasionally for several years, but not noticed the plaque before.  I was told it was to commemorate a Professor of the University, Massimo D’Antona, who had been assassinated some years earlier (1999) for serving on a government committee looking into the reform of labour law.  In the UK it sometimes seems we have lost our passion, that politics and life end up in a lassitude and compromise, that we need some of the passion of the south.  And yet, this passion comes at a cost.

I came to Nightingale through reading Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie.  The central part of Greig’s semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical book is his journey to fish at the loch of the title, accompanied with two close friends, brothers, one of which was Peter. One evening, camping beside another loch, in conversation oiled with whisky drunk from camping mugs, Peter shares his early ideas for a story.  He is a GP in London at the time, and dabbling in writing, but yet to write a full novel.

I was captivated by this real story, of the man and his desires, and instantly reached for the internet to find him.  It was with so much joy that I saw he had written the novel, and was now an award-winning author (and still a doctor, but now in Scotland). Greig’s account had opened up such an intimacy with these brothers, so wonderful to see those nascent ideas, on that midge-plagued, peat-mattressed shoreline, bear fruit.