Blackburn, Julia. Thin Paths
A melange of travel book and memoir, Thin Paths is an enjoyable read. The sub-title ‘Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village’ appropriately excludes reference to the seeing-eye author, whose ‘rescuing’ of a life that is being swiftly outmoded gives a melancholy tinge to these tales of persistence and occasionally derring-do. The smooth transitions between past and present are well handled: the anecdotal stories of real people, many of whom are now in their nineties form that vital link.
Julia’s partner Herman is for the most part kept hidden, and his long visit to Amsterdam for cancer treatment that must have been traumatic is deliberately underplayed. The author is too preoccupied with studying the flora and fauna and of unlocking the peasant life that is gone and lost for ever. She has a snatching eye that seizes on fragments, some of which are caught on camera, which reveal the mutability of this isolated community. In a section entitled ‘Fragility’ she picks up a bit of a tombstone and takes it home: The stone was heavy and its rough edges bit into the palm of my hands. I found a place to prop it at the back of the water tank. Reflected in the water, the sunlight flickered on the surface of the marble. The shadow of maidenhair ferns flickered across it and shuddered in the wind.
If you have read the author’s previous memoir of her horrendous upbringing, The Three of Us, you will understand her need to find peace and tranquility in the remoter areas of Liguria. Deadly snakes and cat-eating peasants are as nothing in comparison. Nature is predictable and observable, while the human heart remains a dark mystery.