Set against the beautiful backdrop of post-World War II Sardinia, Sara Alexander’s evocative novel is a sweeping story of star-crossed romance between an American lieutenant and a local girl.
Sometimes a family’s deepest silences hide the most important secrets. For Mina, a London-based travel writer, the enigmatic silence surrounding her aunt Carmela has become a personal obsession. Carmela disappeared from her Italian hometown long ago and is mentioned only in fragments and whispers. Mina has resisted prying, respectful of her family’s Sardinian reserve. But now, with her mother battling cancer, it’s time to learn the truth.
In 1952, Simius is a busy Sardinian town surrounded by fertile farms and orchards. Carmela Chirigoni, a farmer’s daughter and talented seamstress, is engaged to Franco, son of the area’s wealthiest family. Everyone agrees it’s a good match. But Carmela’s growing doubts about Franco’s possessiveness are magnified when she meets Captain Joe Kavanagh. Joe, an American officer stationed at a local army base, is charismatic, intelligent, and married. Hired as his interpreter, Carmela resolves to ignore her feelings, knowing that any future together must bring upheaval and heartache to both families.
As Mina follows the threads of Carmela’s life to uncover her fate, she will discover a past still deeply alive in the present, revealing a story of hope, sacrifice, and extraordinary love.
“Like Sardinia’s Emerald Coast, Sara Alexander’s Under A Sardinian Sky will dazzle you with its glittering descriptions of the Mediterranean island, its exquisite culinary treasures, and authentic, beautiful people. But it is the heroine Carmela’s courage and heartbreaking choices that will leave you the most enchanted and racing through the novel to learn her extraordinary fate.” —Rosanna Chiofalo, author of Rosalia’s Bittersweet Pastry Shop
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Under a Sardinian Sky
By Sara Alexander
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Sara Alexander
All rights reserved.
Seven years had passed since the roars of V-Day before the Sardinian town of Simius flung off its ashen veil of world war and threw an Assumption Day fiesta full of spectacle and hope. Children squealed beneath the strings of lights that rendered the stark, dusty central promenade unrecognizable. The narrow houses that lined the square, crushed together like skinny matriarchs pushing against one another for attention, boasted long strips of red and green fabric hung beneath their weary shutters. Benevolent, rosy-cheeked men butchered nougat. Farmers sold their pungent pecorino. Women flogged slabs of bitter almond brittle. And yet the Simiuns would never throw their hands in the air with the abandon of the singsong Neapolitans or caterwaul into the night with the joie de vivre gesticulation of the Romans.
Carmela looked over at the portly accordion player, who squeezed life into his instrument and bellowed a ballu tundu, a traditional dance performed in a circle, heralding the start of the festivities. A troupe from a neighboring town, south of Simius, swarmed the piazza. They interlocked arms in a tight line and began to dance. The accordion player's fingers raced up and down the keyboard as the tune whirled into a fast ditty.
Carmela admired the female dancers' costumes, and not simply because she and her colleagues at her godmother's tailoring studio had made them. Their starched white headscarves were wrapped around their heads in a complicated crisscross pattern, held in place with gold pins on either side. The scarves framed their faces, drawing attention to the dark twinkle of their almond eyes, much like a Spanish mantilla or the veils of Arabian princesses; historic invaders from both places had left their mark on her island's history and traditional dress. They wore billowing white blouses with intricate laced cuffs and collars. Over these were very tight-fitting, sleeveless bodices in bright red satin with gold embroidery, which cinched in their tiny waists. The neckline was cut low to allow the ruffles of the collars to show. Their plain, long black skirts with angular creases were topped with narrow aprons festooned with vibrant needlework depicting flowers, birds, and patterns in primary colors as bold and joyous as their expressions were inscrutable. Around their necks were velvet chokers from which coral and turquoise crucifixes hung. In their ears, garnets and cornelians, with intricate gold settings as delicate as fine lace, swung as they bobbed into their steps. At the yoke of the neckline each dancer had a brooch, made from two flattened, golden conical shapes, like tiny Bronze Age shields, set with coral or turquoise at their centers.
The men, dressed in long black woolen waistcoats despite the balmy August evening, glided in white shirts with sleeves that ballooned toward tight, starched cuffs. The black tunics below flared out like skirts, reaching down to the middle of their thighs, where the tops of their white cotton trouser legs underneath puffed over the rims of their high black boots. The length of their velveteen black hats flopped over to one side, like a hare's ear.
The dancers stared out into the distance, their shoulders perfectly level, as their feet shuffled, syncopated and synchronized. Despite the joyous melody, their expressions were cool with indifference, as if their feet moved involuntarily. Their torsos were held bolt upright; they wove in and out of formations like ornate planks. Carmela would have liked to lose herself in the colorful beauty of the display but couldn't help dissecting their costumes with the mathematical eye of the seamstress who had crafted them over the past year. Each autumn brought a slew of commissions for the numerous summer festivals in which the dancers would perform. As she tried to commit any improvements she would make to memory, there was an urgent tug at her elbow. "We're a girl down!" Carmela's sister Piera was flushed with panic. It made her look wirier than she was already.
"Ripped her ankle. You're on!"
"Here's her costume," Piera said, shoving a mass of color in front of Carmela. With that she grabbed Carmela's arm and dragged her down into the warren of darkened streets in a frantic search for an abandoned doorway to change in.
"This is ridiculous!" Carmela cried out, trying to catch her breath. Piera cut a sudden turn downhill, passing their Zio Raimondo's shoe shop. Then she jerked to a halt beneath the arches of The Old Spanish House, a high-walled diminutive fortress left by the sixteenth-century Spaniard invaders her islanders were so proud of.
"Just ask one of the Nugheddu girls!" Carmela said, trying to fight off her sister's quick hands scrambling over the buttons on the back of her dress.
"I'm not asking any of those trollops from the next town!"
"Then tell the dancer's partner to sit it out too, for goodness sake!" Carmela snapped, quickly reaching to catch her own dress as it fell over her slip toward the cobbles. "Piera!" she gasped, seizing her sister's hands. "Have you lost your mind?!"
"I let you out of my sight for two seconds and you're down an alley getting undressed!" a voice called out. The spidery silhouette of Carmela's fiancé, Franco, crept round the corner. She yanked her dress up high over her front, covering as much of her body as she could, though the warm night air still brushed over her bare shoulders.
"Perhaps you can knock some sense into my sister!" Carmela cried.
"Impossible," Franco replied. "She won't let any man in spitting distance." He leaned against the wall of the house that flanked the steps.
Piera didn't mirror his grin. "Carmela's got two minutes to save us from disaster," she huffed, stuffing Carmela's feet into the black underskirt and yanking it up. "Turn around!" Piera ordered, spinning her to face the wall, throwing a blouse over her head, and beginning to squeeze her into the bodice.
"This dancer's half my size," Carmela muttered.
"Not everyone's been blessed with your curves. Take this shawl," Piera replied, throwing it over Carmela's shoulders and knotting it at the base of her back, "It'll hide the gap at the back."
Franco stood watching. Carmela felt her cheeks flush.
Piera whipped a scarf around Carmela's head and began fastening it at the back of her neck. Franco looked her up and down. "I've never liked those old-fashioned head things till now."
He sauntered down the last few steps and planted his lips on Carmela's before she could brush him off.
"Franco ..." she said, smoothing the embroidered apron Piera was wrapping around her so it would lie as well as it might.
"Piera's almost my sister-in-law. Not the last time she'll see me kiss you."
"Not if I can help it," Piera piped from the hem of Carmela's skirt, where she crouched down to pick it out from under her square heels.
Franco smirked. "Tomboys make fine spinsters, Pie'."
"That's enough, you two!" Carmela said, feeling the heat of embarrassment and increasing nerves.
"Franco! Vieni subito!" a voice called.
The three looked up toward the steps.
"Cristiano?" Franco yelled up to his cousin as he came panting down toward them. Franco pulled away from Carmela. "What in God's name?"
Cristiano stood, breathless and giddy with liquor. "You must come — the boys have got the Americans in a drinking competition. We'll lose if you're not there!"
Carmela willed Cristiano's eyes to tear themselves away from her body.
Franco gave him a shove. "Where's your manners, you cretin? That's how you look at my fiancée?"
Carmela winced. She felt like a gormless mannequin wearing the wrong clothes.
"Come on, you imbecile," Franco said, giving his cousin a kick as they set off. "You watch this, Carmela," he called back with the malevolent bristle of an adolescent, "we'll show those G.I.s what Sardinians are made of!" With that they bounded around the corner to inebriation.
Before Carmela could take a breath, Piera grabbed her wrist and led her in a gallop back up through the alleys. Their footsteps ricocheted off the thick walls of the houses, which huddled along the viccoli barely wide enough for a loaded donkey. They reached the main square just as it was time for the local troupe to begin their performance. The injured dancer's partner moved toward Carmela and wrapped his arm around her waist. Before she could compose herself, she was spun around like a top, shuffling into the middle of the long line of dancers, hoping she didn't look as much the deer before a hunter as she felt. She adored creating the costumes, and her deft work attracting admiration, but being the center of attention in this way was something Carmela loathed. The entire dance was spent holding one side of the skirt down with her thumb so that it wouldn't ride up to her chest.
Carmela had watched every rehearsal, using the time in between choreography calls to give each of the performers their fittings, adjusting their costumes accordingly. By tonight, she was as familiar with the routines as threading a needle, though she had never planned to perform them. During the bridge, the dance mistress had chosen a few measures for the now-fallen dancer and her partner to perform alone while the remaining members of the troupe jigged upstage in a line. It was a scandalous departure from the military patterns of these traditional dances, and one Carmela had hoped to enjoy from the safety of a crowd.
Now she found herself led this way and that. The world whirred. She aimed to stare at a spot directly in front of her, to maintain balance in the fog, just as the dance mistress had instructed the dancers during rehearsals. Her eyes couldn't focus with the sea of faces ahead of her. She lost her footing. Her partner would have almost spun her horizontally had he not had the forethought to shunt them into a retreat and rejoin the line — a measure too early. The troupe, counting in their heads, was thrown off beat. The remainder of the dance was a ramshackle version of what they had spent months preparing for. Carmela could feel the hot glare from the dance mistress on the sidelines.
As soon as the accordion wheezed its closing chord, Carmela fled the square, grabbing her own dress and retreating to the secluded changing spot. She didn't wait for Piera. It was too painful to look anyone in the eye, even her own sister.
In the quiet, Carmela began to slip out of the costume she had spent hours making and back into her own. She brushed away embarrassment with each stroke of her ruffled hair. Why should she care what she looked like anyway? A betrothed woman had no place worrying about her appearance. Her job was to prepare for marriage, to portray a wholesome image to the world. To look good enough for a fiancé to invite her to be his wife, she supposed, but not so much that it would seem she chased attention elsewhere.
"Everything all right, ma'am?"
Carmela twisted around to the American voice, grasping the top of her dress and pulling it up to cover as much of herself as she could.
She squinted up toward the steps, at the unfamiliar silhouette. The man's voice was clear and warm, silky even, very different from the timbre Carmela was accustomed to hearing from the soldiers. Or perhaps it was her comprehension that had improved.
"I caught you running. I wanted to make sure I needn't be chasing after someone on your behalf," he continued, with a polite turn of his head away from her, signaling that he had noted her state of near undress. What must he be thinking of her skulking in the shadows this way? The fading light from an oil street lamp streaked across his eyes for a brief moment. "You can't be too careful at these fiestas."
"Yes," Carmela replied, struck by something more startling than the blue of his eyes. She was half dressed down a darkened alley speaking English with a perfect stranger. He was a soldier, no less, and they weren't well known for their manners. Despite all of this, she felt something peculiar in the presence of this man she didn't know: safe. It was more disarming than fear itself.
Carmela recalled how she and her sisters, as young adolescents, had run down to the piazza when these corporals had arrived eight years ago. She imagined that those V-Day hero cheers from the mainland were still ringing in their ears as they swaggered into her town, victorious. They liberated the island from the decay of war with gum and smiles. The shoeless poor still ambled the white roads of neighboring villages, farms crumbling in the crags of the ancient valleys inland, and for many, hunger was entrenched in quotidian life. But the fatal sting of malaria had finally been eradicated, thanks to the Americans, and this alone was cause to celebrate. Carmela and her sisters had returned home that day with their pockets bulging with hard squares of pink, covered in wrappers they couldn't read, to be pummeled with their grandmother's vitriol against those devils incarnate. She had confiscated their loot, placing it into the glass urn filled with candy reserved for visitors.
"I'm fine, really," Carmela said at last, feeling as if she owed a decent reply to a genuine concern for her safety. "It is a long and silly story."
He smiled. "Your English is better than my Italian. Compliments."
"I work with people from London sometimes," she said. The little English she knew, she had learned from an adventurous London family, the Curwins, who took residence in a Victorian villa every summer since the war ended. Carmela and Piera worked for them as seasonal domestics. Because of the eradication of malaria, Simiuns had felt the first blushes of tourism.
The soldier stepped back into a shaft of light, casting his shadow through one of the arches and onto the stucco wall beside him. He had an open, handsome face. Carmela had seen many handsome faces since the foreigners settled. Their tall, pale beauty was so different from the small, dark men most girls were promised to at a young age. It made the soldiers somewhat of a novelty, one that many local girls chased after but that always left Carmela cold.
She realized she must have been staring straight up into the light, because he had morphed back into a silhouette. Carmela shifted and grasped the tip of her dress tighter to her chest.
"Good night now," he said, breaking the silence.
With that he placed a cigarette onto his lips, turned on his heels, and climbed back up to the fiesta. She watched his smoke spiraling up into the night air.
After securing every button on her dress and clutching a carefully folded pile of costume, Carmela began her ascent toward the piazza. She placed the dancer's costume on a bench by a neighbor's sweet stall, relieved to find everyone's attention directed toward a new event taking place in the center of the piazza. She joined the throng, bristling with anticipation ahead of a live performance. The audience surrounded a smaller, impenetrable circle of an all-male choir. No danger of being asked to substitute this time.
Carmela noted the starkness of their expressions, that characteristic Sardinian stare that would not let on whether it loathed or loved what it saw. For a fleeting moment she perceived that hard, diffident shell for which her islanders were infamous, but also the molten center that it protected. Maybe this is what it felt like to stand close to a range of volcanoes.
Her eyes drifted over the American soldiers, dotted among her neighbors. For a split second she thought she caught sight of the alley soldier. She squinted. He was fair-haired, with the same white skin flushed with a rosy pallor. But even from this distance, she could see that the way he moved as he spoke with his colleagues was jerky and juvenile. He was a blond pup, with none of the understated grace of the man in the viccolo. She brushed away the futility of the thought without taking her eyes off the young soldier. Instead, she considered how different the Simiuns were compared to the prim Milanese, the refined Turinese, or the girdled girls who these young American men might have left behind before their journey to her craggy, crystalline-coved isle.
Excerpted from Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander. Copyright © 2017 Sara Alexander. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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