Vancouver Sun

Etruscan history a backdrop for secrets, lies


Barbara Lambert
Cormorant Books, 380 pages, $22

When Penticton writer Barbara Lambert first went to stay in an old mill house in Italy, she had no idea she would spend the next dozen years almost literally underground.
Lambert had just completed a collection of short stories that would later win the Danuta Gleed Award for best first Canadian collection of short fiction, and be a finalist for B.C.’s Ethel Wilson Prize. She was hoping that during an extended stay in Tuscany, she would find inspiration for her next work.
She did find that inspiration and spent a decade immersing herself in the story about a young woman who would inherit an old farm house in the hills and the history of the ancient Etruscan civilization.
Tell us about your character Clare Livingston’s complex history:
Clare Livingston’s inheritance – a huge surprise to her! – is from an uncle who fled the family 20 years before, when Clare was just 13, leaving scandal in his wake. And the terms of his will turn out to be equally scandalous. He left nothing at all to his deserted wife, and (“with forgiveness”) everything to Clare: With the creepy proviso that she carry his ashes back to Italy. But forgiveness of what? And forgiveness to whom?
This young woman, Clare, is not just a “flower artist” but a botanical artist – a discipline that combines artistic creativity with a dedication to truth and to science. Yet she tells a lot of lies. You’ve described her, elsewhere, as scattering those lies the way the goddess Flora scatters flowers, in a famous fresco from Pompeii.
Well Clare has a lot to hide. Both from herself, as it turns out, and more immediately from others. I don’t think it’s a “spoiler” to note that just before she learned of the inheritance, she had published a “travel” book illustrated with her own botanical paintings, about a trip to the dark and endangered areas of the Amazon. A trip which, in fact, she never made.
But her intent in publishing the book has been a “true” one all the same, hoping to bring attention to that imperilled part the world.
One of the things the novel explores is that kind of “layered” nature of truth (or if you will, of lies) – and also the hard-to-pin-down nature of love. None of those, really, are all that straightforward, are they? Certainly not for Clare.
When the Amazonia book came out, she was keeping a low profile, working as a botanical lab assistant in Vancouver and fooling herself that she could escape personal attention somehow, no matter how the book itself was praised. But now, with the inheritance, she immediately attracts intense attention among a group of knowledgeable people in Tuscany, including one who is a significant expert on the Amazon.
Finally – in a country with such a long and diverse history as Italy – why was it particularly the Etruscans that you felt compelled to explore? What is it about that culture that so intrigues you?
As to the Etruscans themselves – to this very day, they are everywhere in Tuscany. It’s impossible not to marvel at the massive stone walls of their hilltop cities, or the actual hills they built themselves to hold their princely tombs; or the museums filled with artifacts of astounding workmanship – strange and beautiful and weirdly compelling – or even to note that in almost any town there is likely to be a bar or café Etrusco where you may suddenly spy a face (almond eyes, splendid arched nose) of someone who could have stepped from a fresco in a tomb buried two-and-a-half thousand years ago.
Yet at the same time, the Etruscans do remain mysterious. Their literature has disappeared. What we know of them, mainly, has been discovered in those lavish tombs. They are a conundrum. Were they truly “fate bound” as some assert, believing obsessively in gloomy portents and pre-ordained outcomes to events? Or were they those brilliant party-people whom the Greeks and later Romans so looked down on for their lavish excesses? Whose women, furthermore, were not only beautiful but powerful – and had terrific fashion sense? I loved the entire adventure of being immersed in that complex and contradictory world where I discovered the itchy truth of the archaeological maxim: There are always “more questions than answers” – just as in life in general, for that matter. Certainly in Clare Livingston’s life. Her resilience, ultimately, in coming to terms with that, was what I loved most about her, as well.
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