Book of revelation

Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.

"I am a man of my word," Luigi Bonnochio tells the owner of a camera store at the beginning of Natalie Danford's debut novel, "Inheritance." The expression, which he has learned from an English-language instruction manual, appears to be a simple declaration of trust and pride by a newly minted American citizen. It is easy to picture Luigi as Danford describes him: balding, deaf in one ear, nervously smoothing his lapels with his hands as he intones the words, testing their heft in his mouth.

What quickly becomes clear, however, is that the phrase means more to Luigi than merely an expression of American solidarity. Its echo reverberates across "Inheritance," carrying a chord of sadness. Luigi has given his word before, and he has failed to keep it. Fifteen years earlier, as a young man in Urbino, Italy, during World War II, he promised to protect the house of a Jewish family until it was safe for the Jews to return to the city. Instead, he turned the family over to the Germans, who sent them to a concentration camp, where they died. Eventually, Luigi boarded a boat for New York with little more than the paper deed to their house folded in his pocket. He never returned to Urbino.

"Italy," Luigi tells his daughter Olivia some 20 years later, "was complicata."

So is Danford's novel. Scarcely longer than 200 pages, "Inheritance" is a slim book with outsize ambitions. Its scope is huge: familial bonds and obligations; memory; rumor; travel narratives; gourmand reveries; the immigrant experience; romance, and its attendant joys and betrayals; the Holocaust. Taken together, Danford's story, of a midcentury Italian immigrant and his daughter's attempt to reconstruct his past, is a sweeping inquiry into the deeds -- literal and personal -- that are passed from one generation to the next. Danford comes admirably close to handling it all. "Inheritance" is an engaging, subtle look at the complicated history of a family and a country, marked equally and inescapably by beauty and ugliness, betrayal and loyalty, love and death.

The novel alternates between Luigi's story, which jumps back and forth through time, and Olivia's, which takes place over the course of a single week in 1994. In this latter plot line, Luigi has just died of Alzheimer's (his greatest wish -- to forget everything -- tragically fulfilled), and Olivia discovers the faded deed and an old-fashioned key tucked away among his things. Curious about her ancestral land, knowing nothing but the country's language and the existence of an aunt, she decides to travel to Urbino to investigate her father's past.

Olivia demonstrates a naivete that seems peculiarly American when she arrives in Italy. "The whole scene felt staged for her," Danford writes. As she looks at the people, she sees reflections of her own lineage in their faces. "Olivia felt their eyes pass over her, and she imagined their surprise in finding out that she was not the outsider she appeared." What a welcome she will receive!

Indeed, the locals are surprised at the return of a Bonocchio -- but not for the reasons Olivia imagines. Luigi, she eventually learns, left Italy in disgrace. The deed she holds connects her to a sordid event in her father's -- and in the country's -- history. The revelation sends her reeling, because in her eyes, her father was gentle, loyal, the kind of guy who couldn't harm a flea.

"In America, it is all black and all white, good and bad, right?" says Gianfranco, a lawyer who tells Olivia her father's story (and who, in an awkward and unnecessary subplot, becomes her lover). Italians understand that things -- especially families -- are always complicata. A duke sacrifices the lives of hundreds to build a palace for the glory of the city and himself; a father injures his son to keep him out of a deadly war, then betrays him; another father drowns his daughter's cancer-ridden cat and lies about it. Truth is messy. "You ask somebody now, they were all partisans during the war," Gianfranco says at one point. "Where are the Fascists? They all disappeared?"

That Danford is able to keep such a complex plot and murky moral drama for the most part under control is impressive, even if she occasionally offers up one narrative twist too many. Her compact prose is studded with rich and telling detail; even the simple act of chewing a shrimp, "curled as if to protect itself," becomes a moment of high suspense. More than the mystery at the novel's center, it is this ability to conjure tension with a single line that makes "Inheritance" so compelling. *

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