Monday, December 23, 2019

The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy, a humorous romp through Italian history and folklore

In the central Italian city of Casteldurante in the late 19th century, a 99-year-old woman, Mariuccia Umbellino, summons a priest so she can unburden herself of a long-held secret. What she reveals isn’t your standard multi-generational saga fare; instead, Hardy’s short novel is a tongue-in-cheek romp through Italian folklore, mythology, and religious tradition.

The tale Mariuccia unfolds takes her back to her youth in the tiny village of Montemonaco, where her family tended olive groves and goats and guarded the shrine of the Lady Sibylla, the Oracle of Cumae.

Sibylla is the self-same prophetess from Virgil and Ovid. As Mariuccia and her mother discover, when they arrive to rescue her before a traveling priest and stuffy prior destroy the pagan cave where she lives, there’s nothing left of Sibylla but her voice – and she’s quite the talker. As if her presence doesn’t cause enough trouble – she gets to move around while tucked away in a jug – she stirs up plenty on her own. What happens next involves love spells (both failed and successful), ghosts, a marriage or two, and a tinker with the evil eye.

If the plot feels a little thin in places, Sibylla has some terrific wisecracking lines (she hates to be left out of the action). The novel’s a fun diversion on historical fiction’s lighter side, featuring two smart heroines who won’t be silenced.

Melissa Hardy's The Oracle of Cumae was published by Canada's Second Story Press in 2019, and I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.

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