A beautifully written historical account of the real-life migration of 300 Italian peasants in 1880, Paradiso (AndAlso Books 2021) by Steve Capelin is rich in detail and description, and captures a time of adventure, hope, sacrifice, betrayal, tribulation and resilience.
Paradiso (AndAlso Books 2021) by Steve Capelin is a beautifully written account of a particular historical time and place, exploring the harsh reality of life 150 years ago, the human drive and determination to succeed and flourish and to provide a better life for your family, and a tale of adventure (or misadventure) on the high seas. The novel (inspired by or based on real-life events from the author’s family) features immersive and evocative imagery of setting and place. Capelin describes the light, the sky, the sea, the landscape in a captivating way that allows the reader to be fully immersed in the story.
Set predominately in 1880, this is the true saga of 300 Italian peasants who abandon their lives and connections to join a French expedition which promises wealth, freedom and prosperity in a Pacific colony. Capelin is a descendant of this expedition, and his diligent research has informed the book with significant details that depict what the migrants would have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelt, experienced and felt. The prose is amplified by meticulous editing by Bianca Milroy.
The story features Lorenzo Perin who is prepared to risk everything, and his wife Caterina, who is not so optimistic, and is told through the alternating voices of their two children, eight-year-old Dominic and his older sister, Marietta. Dominic yearns for adventure while his sister would like to escape her life of obligation. But when they arrive in New Guinea – a totally foreign land and climate, peopled with natives, animals and plants that are strange to them – it is apparent that the expedition has not been as well planned or well-resourced as the peasants were promised. Supplies dwindle; disease and illness take hold. What begins as a hopeful dream becomes a harsh nightmare of hunger, sickness, dashed expectations and death.
There is a large cast of characters in this novel, so that I had trouble keeping up with them all; sometimes the names/personalities blended together. But the stable thread of the voices of Dominic and Marietta propel the story forward as the reader discovers, along with the two children, the challenges and difficulties they must confront. Much of the story takes place on one of several sea journeys, and these are depicted with a minutiae of exactly which tools and implements, food and clothing, tasks and work would have predominated.
The last chapter is set in 1918 in Australia, when Dominic is an adult, and although I could see the author’s theme in connecting the earlier migrant experience with the treatment of Italian migrants during World War I, this felt a little disconnected to me, almost as if this could be a completely other book. Perhaps Capelin will develop this plot line into another book, because it is certainly rich material, but quite separate from the main body of the story.
The themes of sacrifice, betrayal, love, friendship, familial obligation, religion, resilience, hope, freedom and escape are navigated with authentic relationships within families, within the wider group and between the migrants and the people they meet along the way. This is obviously a story that has been researched and written with an intense devotion and a determination to pay homage to the author’s ancestors and the challenges they faced.
The most impressive aspect of this book, besides the research, is the writing. Capelin has a real gift for interpreting dialogue, actions and events of the past with authenticity, and his prose is lyrical and detailed. He takes us into the hearts and minds of these weary travellers and gives us a vivid, first-hand account. This fictionalised account of true events will appeal to history buffs, to anyone interested in migration and emigration, to those keen to know more about life in the late 1800’s, and to those who enjoy stories about families and communities who exit one life and embrace another in the hope of a better future.