Gifts for Ugo is a historical novel set in a fictional town in southern Italy, in the poorest village of the poorest region of struggling Italy, Basilicata, circa 1908. This richly imagined, soulful story is told in a direct, natural style that reminds me of the late Morris L. West's beautiful prose in his novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, and even more so in his novel The Devil's Advocate. As with those novels, a reader needs a quiet mind and quiet surroundings to fully immerse oneself in the world the writer recreates.
Like West, the author of Gifts for Ugo has a talent for creating characters that feel real, such as the priest of Fignola, the hill-town where Pastor Ugo Sacco has served for twenty-two years. Father Ugo is a bitter, angry, frustrated man. His powerful ambitions were thwarted early in life, and his oversized ego was battered and bruised. This has made the man difficult to live with, let alone confess to, and submit to his sermons and benedictions. His parishioners say that Father Sacco is:
...as the bitterroots, necessary for the healing but unpleasant to taste.
Father Ugo Sacco has only one friend in the village, Tommaso, a childhood friend who was exiled to Fignola, too, as punishment, but who has found a place there, helping the simple people cope with some of the complexities of life. Tommaso advises his friend that:
Holding onto failed dreams only makes you bitter.
But things only start to change when a priest is sent to assist Father Sacco: Padre Colio. The diminutive priest is a wise, deeply spiritual, compassionate man. His example brings about a gradual change in Father Ugo Sacco, creating many poignant moments in this story of pastoral life in a dusty, poor village, that is nonetheless rich with heart, but also in great need of spiritual guidance.
A lovely touch by the author is an earthquake, common in that part of Italy, that occurs halfway through the novel. The earthquake becomes a physical manifestation of the turning point for Father Ugo. The man's bitter mindset is shaken just like the church and village are. The novel, from that point on, charts Father Ugo's journey to loving humanity. Along the way he discovers humility, devotion, and a spirituality that he never dreamed he was capable of.
The author shows a deep psychological understanding of his characters. In fact, I can easily state that the novel is a spiritual drama combined with character studies of a complex flawed man, and of a complex saintly man. The interactions of the two men, and their work with the villagers, is rich with poignancy, provoking tears at times from this reader.
The ruins of a Basilicatan hill-town
Throughout the novel, the author treats us to lovely turns of phrase that seem to come straight from the mouths of the hill-people, such as:
Ugo will set his mind and not realize that Rocco arranged his thoughts.
There are many other phrases in the deceptively simple prose that seem more poetry than prose, but I won't quote any more because I don't want to rob the reader of the discovery and enjoyment of these nuggets within the context of the story. The dialog of all the characters, especially the villagers, sounds like Italian but is always in English, a difficult thing to achieve, but something that adds greatly to the verisimilitude of the story.
The chapters are titled, and read, as if they were episodes in a series about the lives of villagers and their spiritual guides. However, each chapter serves a purpose, moving the story forward, until more than one person finds peace and salvation for his soul after decades of pain and torment.
The book has just undergone a very professional and thorough edit, so it is clean of any typos or errors. The only thing that I think would improve the book is a new cover design. The minimalist design it has now is unique, but perhaps not eye-catching enough for many readers, who see only thumbnail images next to e-books on-line. But really, I cannot praise Gifts for Ugo highly enough!
From the book's description:
Family wealth and status demand much from Ugo Sacco. His father sends him to Italy’s finest schools before he enters the seminary where noble blood and a sharp mind make him stand out. Ugo believes the Church will someday make him Cardinal or Bishop. He believes that fate chose him to lead. He also believes that he will not fail.
First of his peers, the church gives him his own parish in a remote village Fignola, Province Potenza. Farmers and artisans, the earthy Fignolans, warmly welcome the refined priest. Ugo soon resents his early success. In the village, he finds too much goat dung and too many ignorant people, and nothing of value for him. He serves Fignola for more than twenty years without making a single friend.
The story begins when the bishop sends a long overdue successor to the former assistant lost to a fever two years before.
Gifts for Ugo is available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon.com:
Here is a three minute video postcard of present-day Basilicata, with a commentary by film director Francis Ford Coppola, who is Italian-American born of Basilicatan stock:
The author, Joseph C. Sciarillo, is on Facebook.
This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.