Books blog: A Catholic author’s search for home

Author Fiorella de Maria worked in a hospital in Jerusalem during her gap year (PA)

I have just read the latest novel of the Catholic author, Fiorella de Maria. Published by Ignatius Press, entitled We’ll Never Tell Them and set in Malta, England and Jerusalem, it tells the story of two linked lives: that of Liljana Camilleri, born in Malta, who grew to adulthood during World War One and also experienced World War Two; and a modern young Maltese woman, Kristjana Falzon, who is trying to sort out her future life while nursing an elderly dying man, Leo Hampton, in a Jerusalem hospital. He happens to be Liljana’s son and it is his description of his mother’s life, with all its sorrows and triumphs, that helps the younger woman decide to face up to life rather than run away from it.

Curious as to the historical backdrop to her novel, I ask Fiorella what made her decide to weave into it the two world wars. She says, “I have always wanted to write a book set in the First World War. I got the idea of writing about a woman of that generation when I was shown a photograph of my husband’s grandfather as a baby in his mother’s arms. I kept thinking, ‘What a tragic generation you were. You watched your husbands and sweethearts march away to war, then barely 20 years later you were parted from your sons.’ That was how Liljana’s story emerged.”

I mention to Fiorella that the novel opens quite dramatically, with Kristjana impulsively walking away from her adult responsibilities to fly to Israel. She reflects, “I think the fear of commitment is very strong among my generation. Kristjana is at an age when she should be thinking of settling down; she has a degree, a career, a steady boyfriend who loves her, but she lacks any sense of purpose in life and that is what she gradually discovers.”

And why does Kristjana choose Jerusalem as her destination? I learn that Fiorella has herself worked in a hospital in Jerusalem during her gap year, before reading English at Cambridge. She remembers meeting “such extraordinary people, including a man who was dying of cancer. I still feel privileged to have met him during what must have been the most frightening weeks of his life. I really felt I was in the presence of a saint.” Jerusalem, she tells me, is “very much a meeting of places and peoples, so I suppose it was natural that if a person felt adrift they might find themselves there.”

Fiorella mentions a detail of the novel I had forgotten: “Shortly after her arrival, Kristjana is in the crypt of a church, near the pool where in the Gospels the blind man received the gift of sight. She is aware that she also is looking for something, some revelation that will make sense of her life.”

The author, who herself was born in Italy of Maltese parents, yet who grew up in England, further explains that her books are influenced by this multi-faceted heritage and thus “have a tendency to take me home. A major theme of the novel is loss of identity and the struggle to belong. All the major characters in the novel are out of place and experience a sense of dislocation or even abandonment at times.”

What made her choose the title of her novel, suggestive of a wartime lament? “It’s taken from a soldiers’ song” she says, “and is partly ironic as the book is about someone telling a story in considerable detail. But another major theme is memory, the way we remember and the details we choose to forget. Kristjana faces a dilemma at one point in the story; whether or not to reveal information to Leo that might hurt him.”

Finally I ask the author of this thought-provoking novel– I won’t give more of the plot away but I do recommend it as a suitable gift for a young person worried about or debating their future path in life – if she has drawn upon other personal experiences for her story, apart from her travels. Fiorella reflects, “I think for an immigrant the sense of being adrift can be quite strong, as well as the need to be belong and to be accepted somewhere.”

Assuring me that the characters are “entirely fictional” she adds “Liljana is a very different character to me and in no way autobiographical – but I did draw a little on my own (former) sense of dislocation to create her struggle to find her place in the world.”