Corfu, Ireland, Rome by Character, History

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two islands and a city that sees itself as a world apart- Corfu, Ireland and Rome, all legendary places in the traveler's imagination replete with complex histories and character. How could any writer go wrong with such subjects for an audience likely to be sympathetic in advance?

Well, they can. At least one author here does. Admittedly, Emma Tennant's A House in Corfu: A Family's Sojourn in Greece (Henry Holt, $23, 207 pages, illus.), a memoir of her family's life on Corfu, invariably will be compared with the classic written by Gerald Durrell long ago about growing up on that Ionian island on Greece's western flank. Alas, in spite of great efforts to make her experience come alive for the reader, the author falls short on many counts - mainly, I suspect, because of some awkward stylistic choices.

It's tempting, though hardly generous, to say that the best thing about the book is the jacket: a decorative blue border evocative of Greek embroidery patterns atop the photograph of a blue-shuttered white-washed dwelling in a grove of greenery and geraniums. Surely, this is every expatriate's dreamhouse, all the better when we learn it sits on about 14 acres overlooking the sea. The owners are the author's parents, a British financier and his wife who fell in love with the property in 1964. Her story is mainly about the labors involved in building what became their retirement home and about the many friends they made among the locals.

Shades of Peter Mayle in Provence, whose success in evoking a sanitized upbeat spirit of place the writer may be trying to emulate. A sentence chosen at random could have come from either book: "Dominated by seasons, spring planting, late-summer harvest of olive and grape, and in months punctuated by celebrations and farewells, we come and go (though I more frequently than others) to this place that has mysteriously become home."

The parenthesis is jarring and, unfortunately, typical of the prose. In the next paragraph the author has jumped ahead five years to tell of her father's death. Some 20 pages later, we are back again in time - "Inflation haunted Greece in the 1970s and 1980s" - and then lurching forward with a description in the present tense about a visit to Corfu town that she limply calls "a pleasurable experience." There is too much of this lazy, hazy writing throughout. Worst of all, nearly every scene is written in the present tense, which is confusing when it isn't downright annoying.

The book's three sections are prefaced with small black and white photographs of the land the Tennant family adopted but none of the people that made their stay so memorable. Travel-cum-memoir books depend one way or another on the personality of the writer to convince us of their merit. As one who has been to Greece several times over the years, I found myself yawning at yet another description of folk dancing at a wedding site and wanting instead to know more about Tennant family relationships.

"House" is beautifully produced: a hand-friendly size with deckle-edged pages and a detailed map. It might be a good present for the first-time traveler in Greek lands who knows nothing at all about the place. Just be sure to choose the recipient carefully.

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G. Franco Romagnoli's A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman's Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City (Steerforth, $25, 272 pages, illus.) by contrast, is bound to entice both old and new Roman hands: the former for sentiment's sake and the latter for cultural enlightenment and useful information. It helps that the author is a native of the city - one who apparently made use of his heritage in later life by writing a cookbook and developing a television show about Italian cooking while living in the United States. He treats his "outsider" (pelligrino) status with aplomb - someone whose family does not go back seven generations. …