I’m sharing today another great find thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team. This will appeal to lovers of Italy and anybody who enjoys a bit of armchair travel.
Tales from the Hamlet. Memories of Italy by Cassandra Campbell-Kemp
At the age of 61, Cassandra, a single and peripatetic Brit, was asked to pack up her house and move to Italy to take up the offer of a much-needed job. 15 months later she was made redundant, leaving her unnerved, broke and unable to return home. Her dream of a new life was rapidly turning into a nightmare and, saddled with all her belongings, her antique furniture, over 800 books and her aged Siamese cat she had nowhere to go.
A kind friend offered them sanctuary in a tiny converted former barn in his family’s ‘Borgo’, a cluster of rustic properties grouped around a late-Medieval manor House in the mountains; the beautiful and mysterious Emilian Appenines of northern Italy. There she was befriended and watched over by the owner; an eccentric octogenarian, his household ghosts and 14 semi feral cats.
The experience proved to be challenging yet deeply transformative as she struggled to recover her equilibrium and rebuild her life.
About the author:
Cassandra is a somewhat eccentric, unconventional and fiercely independent woman of pensionable age. Formerly an international real estate executive she travelled widely, living and working in various European countries – including Italy, Greece and Spain. During her time in Europe she fell in love with the countries, their cultures, the people and the food! She learnt several languages and spent all her spare time exploring.
Now happily retired, she lives alone with her rescue cat, Felix, in a quintessential 17th century English cottage where she writes about her 30 years of adventures. Her first book, ‘Cauliflowers through the Catflap and other tales from a solitary lockdown’ is a humorous and very tongue-in-cheek look at her experiences of shielding alone through the Covid pandemic. Her second book, ‘Tales from the Hamlet’, is a heartwarming tale of what happened when, living in Italy, she was unexpectedly made redundant and saddled with all her antique furniture, over 800 books and an elderly Siamese cat, she had no money to return home and nowhere to go.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
As a memoir, this is a book that shares the experiences of the author, narrated in the first-person, at a particular point in her life, rather than being an exhaustive account of her biography. That means that the author has chosen a particular aspect or period of her life to share, and this is interesting in its own right, as from the little she tells us at the beginning and what she reveals throughout the book, it soon becomes evident that she has embarked in many adventures, has lived and worked in many different countries, speaks many languages, and her lifestyle does not conform to what many people would expect in somebody of her age. She is not married, has no children, grandchildren, or close family, and although she loves her own space and her independence, she is neither domestic nor domesticated.
There are several elements that make this book unique: the protagonist is not a young woman, she is not in the best of health, and she makes a risky choice at a point in life when most people would be looking forward to their retirements (or even taking early retirement). After years of living abroad, going from country to country, and moving from one challenging but fulfilling job to another, she doesn’t seem to be able to find a suitable job at home (back in the UK). So when an offer from Italy comes knocking at her door, she does not hesitate. This is not a woman who is trying to find herself or discover anything new (even if she learns plenty); she is moving due to her career. Also, although she meets plenty of people and makes many friends, there is no romance in sight (thankfully)! The topic of the Brexit (the book takes place before the treaty was finalised, but it had been voted already and was in the process of being finalized) results in plenty of jokes about her having to marry an Italian man, but these are only jokes, and despite passing comments about the attractiveness of some of the men she meets, and some harmless flirting, this is not a story about a woman who finally finds “the right man”. She is quite clear in her choices, and she enjoys living by herself.
This being Italy, there is plenty of food, wine, amazing landscapes, and Italian words and phrases, but the protagonist is not a cook, and she enjoys the food but does not share recipes or tricks about Italian home cooking. (Sorry if you were expecting those).
She is not big at sharing her past history either, and, other than a brief introduction (that goes some way to explaining how she found herself with a CV full of experience in many different jobs all over Europe but with no formal qualifications or diplomas, and also a polyglot without any certificates in any of the languages she is fluent in), she only reveals things that are directly relevant to the story or to the background of characters we come in contact with (her best friend from home, Ugo, her Italian friend, who finds her the perfect accommodation…), and she also answers the direct questions of some of the people she meets, but Cassandra is not a woman who spends her time idly mulling over her past and what could have been. Yes, she does worry about the future, and she needs a bit of help to assess her options in a realistic manner. Nonetheless, this is a woman who is always looking forward and thinking of what task she can undertake next, and that might vary from the very practical and every day (like changing banks and getting the internet installed), to projects that could help develop and reshape the region she is staying in, bringing in foreign investment and all that involves. No matter what the difficulties and she has to face quite a few, both personal and bureaucratic, she is a force of nature, and she does not give up easily.
I liked many things about this book: Italy, and Cassandra’s love affair with the area, the province of Emilia Romagna (she doesn’t fall in love with a man, but she does with the location, its history, its traditions, and its people). She is an avid amateur historian and researcher, and she feels strong connections with people and places, to the point of having quasi-mystical experiences when visiting certain spots and natural wonders. I was fascinated by her descriptions of places, the information she shares on the history of the region, the way the food is prepared (I knew little about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but now I share in her fascination), and her lyrical renderings of attending a choir concert, or sharing a delightful moment with a boy and his grandmother. You don’t just feel as if you were there, you feel at one with the protagonist, no matter how little or how much you have in common with her (which, in my case, I realise is quite a lot, despite thinking we had very little in common at the beginning). I also loved her observational skills. Sometimes these might result in minute and mundane things being explained in detail (how to get a trolley in the supermarket, or how to access a parking spot at the airport), but, considering how many places she has visited, and the many different ways of doing things she has had to battle through, it makes perfect sense. Who knows how familiar people reading the book might be with things we give for granted in our own environments?
I also enjoyed her love of language, which results in the use of some uncommon words that one is unlikely to read in a newspaper article or a bestseller (but once you’ve read them, and, in some cases, checked them in a dictionary and learned them, you are likely to adopt), but I am sure advanced English students will be enchanted by. I also loved her use of Italian words (whose meaning is always explained), which pepper the narrative and are often more descriptive than any English equivalent.
I am no Italian history buff and had never heard of Matilda di Canossa before, but after reading of her role in the region and the lasting impression she left, palpable even 900 years after her death, now I also share in the protagonist’s interest in this amazing woman, whom we all should know more about.
Oh, and the characters… She does meet some wonderful people, and she never has anything bad to say about anybody. Everybody is a source of information, amusement, knowledge, friendship, help, or delight, and always generous when they encounter this peculiar but good-natured and interesting English woman. And the animals are also wonderful. We have plenty of cats (not only Cassandra’s own Geisha, but the manor house cat, Mimi, the farm cats), a fabulous dog, and some less welcome inhabitants of the area. Yes, Cassandra is a mosquito magnet, another thing we have in common.
Is there anything I didn’t like? Not as such. Readers who prefer their stories streamlined, minimalistic, and pared down, might get frustrated with this book, and many editors would probably trim it down to a fraction of what it is now, as the author narrates similar anecdotes of meeting people who are surprised at seeing her driving a right-handed car, speaking Italian though she is evidently a foreigner, looking at her and asking her all kinds of personal questions, where her husband is, being the most frequent. There are also innumerable descriptions of meals in different restaurants, shopping trips to buy a variety of items and foodstuffs, and her attempts at dealing with Italian bureaucracy. In some ways, this is like having a conversation with a close friend, somebody you might talk to very often, and with whom you share the little things that fill up your days, even when there isn’t anything amazing or extraordinary to say. As the author explains, in her acknowledgments, this book originated in a series of Facebook posts she shared about her adventures in Italy, and as a result of the encouragement, she received from her followers to turn it into a book. With this origin in mind, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate the conversational tone of the writing, which is also full of humour. Life is made up, mostly, of these little quotidian things, and we only realise how much we miss them when “normality” disappears, as we’ve all had to learn recently, unfortunately. (I highlighted many quotes throughout the book, but as I often do, I recommend to those who might not be sure if the writing style will suit them or not, to check a sample of the book and take their time with it. It is worth it).
The ending is a return, to the UK; not a true ending, but a “to be continued” with a promise of a book of Further Tales to be published later. This suits the hopeful nature of the book and leaves us wanting more. I am aware that the author has written about her experiences during the COVID confinement, although I haven’t read her account, so those who are impatient to read more from the author while waiting for the next book in this series can check that.
If I had to issue a warning, I agree with what the author says, on the back cover of the paperback version of this book, also included in the Kindle version: Don’t read this book when you’re hungry, and I would add, especially if you’re on a diet because you might feel compelled to raid your fridge or rush to your nearest restaurant on reading about the wonderful meals Cassandra partakes of. On the positive side, the author includes a list with information, and in some cases links, to the restaurants and eateries she mentions in the narrative, at the back of the book, so those planning a trip to the region can compare notes, try the food and meet some of the people. And if you need any further encouragement, the author includes a link to her website, where you can check photos of the locations mentioned, and also access other useful links.
In case you want to check it now, here it is.
By the way, if you are not into paranormal happenings or ghosts, don’t worry. Despite the mention of ghosts in the description, that is not what the book is about.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy non-fiction, especially memoirs, but are looking for something a bit different. Yes, the book is inspiring and life-affirming, but its protagonist is so unique that getting to know her and to expend some time with her is what makes it a worthwhile read. There is plenty of useful and fascinating information as well, and people thinking about moving to Italy, or just visiting it, will find it invaluable. So, if you are ready to meet a truly eccentric and wonderful woman, her cat, and are happy to follow her in her adventures (culinary and others) throughout a little-known but gorgeous region of Italy, don’t hesitate. Cassandra will become the guide you never knew you needed.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and all the members of her team, and to you all for your support and for always being there, reading, commenting, and sharing. Make sure you stay safe, happy, and keep smiling and living life to the full!