On a little island without a name a woman dies giving birth to her first-born, Agata, who after an undistinguished childhood looks after her father and works in the port's cafe.
There's little on the island except for a prison called "il Monte". The prison boss, "il Bianco", eats at the cafe. One night he asks for a meal. The cook's away so Agata invents a sauce that becomes popular. il Bianco celebrates the anniversary of the prison by inviting a famous circus. On the night of the performance Agata, who's not beautiful, sleeps with Dumitru (the name means "lover of the earth" - he likes Agata's bare feet). The circus leaves, but Dumitru soon returns. He and Agata live in sin, outraging the island's "pious women", several of whom are cynical about love. Dumitru wasn't born into a circus family, and hadn't long joined the circus but he has a love of animals, especially a horse Rosso. At the circus he'd been engaged to marry Sterlina Vallone, the boss's daughter.
Agata buys out the cafe, has a child called "Isola", a mute who likes sewing, and who has the power to predict deaths. She resembles a statue in the church and becomes known as "L'Annunciata". Dumitru buys back the horses he performed with and eventually builds a permanent circus.
Meanwhile the prison closes. A mainland official, Angelo Greco ("il Greco"), who'd been invited to the circus event becomes an entrepreneur and converts the prison into a hotel. He transforms the island into a tourist destination, bringing in people to manage things, exploiting the islanders. The priest who has excommunicated Agate is on his side.
il Greco invites the circus back 10 years after its first visit to christen the island on St Elmo's day. Sterlina has become famous and will be the celebrity guest, but she decides to arrive in disguise, her cousin acting as her double. Sterlina watches Dumitru's show.
The "pious women" of the island plan a revolution, disrupting the baptism ceremony with the help of a statue stolen from the church. At home Agata hears her daughter speak for the first time. She summons the winds. A storm suddenly rages, Sterlina's double drowns. il Greco suspects Isola, rushes to confront her and dies. The storm abates. Dumitru tells the police that he killed il Greco. He's taken to a distant prison, run by no other than il Bianco. Agata stops making her sauce.
The island becomes unpopular. Agata has saved up enough to buy back properties for the islanders. Hotels are demolished. The "pious women" of the island realise that the gipsy Dumitru had many christian attributes after all, and that Agata could be the island's saviour. Agata gets Sterlina to start a circus school which will support the island. A committee of women organise matters.
The final chapter's in the first person from Agata's viewpoint. Isola had put on the blue dress which was all that Agata had of her mother, then died. She was Greco's daughter, the result of a rape. The book ends with a recipe.
The book has strong elements of fable/allegory (Agata's hair goes white at childbirth, etc) and destiny/archetype, though it's set in the mid to late 1900s. The reader's encouraged to read symbolically in various ways
- There are few descriptions (though meals receive much attention).
- Several phrases that devalue appearance are repeated: that beauty can't be bought, that "good" isn't the same as "beautiful", that to live you need a dream, and that the sauce recipe must remain a secret.
- Though the island may be nameless, people's names may have a significance over and above what we're told. il Bianco is compared to a communist, Ermete and Onorate Vallone are Sterlina's father and brother respectively, and the choice of "Sterlina" (and "il Greco") might not be accidental. Allusions abound -
- "Sterlina knew how to stay in equilibrium between illusion and lies with the same concentration with which she once walked the tight-rope" (p.169)
- Sterlina says "the circus is a space suspended between perfection and error" (p.208)
Compare/contrast binaries are abundant too - the static island vs itinerant circuses; paradise island vs prison; names and anonymity; duty vs love; chance vs fate; the ringmaster's suit Dumitru was given vs the blue dress.
The politics aren't complex, on a character level Dumitru's obsessions aren't convincing, and Agata's father disappears completely for a long while, but as fate-driven fable I think the novel works well - characters who aren't popular with the masses turn out to have inner goodness, love conquers all, and at the end the situation's restored to much the way it was before the outside world interfered.
[for corrections to the above, see the comments]