All in the Family: Murder in Matera | 2017
"The name Vena can be translated a number of ways. It can mean mood, either good or bad. Or it can mean streak, as in having a lucky streak or a wild streak. Vena poetica means having a turn for poetry. But Vena's main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime."
- Murder in Matera, p. 59
The Sum of It:
A work of non-fiction, Murder in Matera is the tale of the author's journey to discover the truth behind her family's oft-repeated and darkest tale, the tale of a murder committed by her great-great grandmother, Vita, back in Italy a long time ago. A murder so dark that it resulted in Vita fleeing to America with two of her children, one other child mysteriously lost to time in the process.
Stapinski describes her family's, er, colorful history of petty and real crime, from her grandfather who started his career stealing a crate of beans, earning the nickname Beansie, then moved on to a life of crime, to her cousin who became a mob consigliere after graduating from Harvard Law School. A journalist, Stapinski was always curious about the facts behind elaborate tales told by her mother over bubbling pots of fragrant tomato sauce, and when she finally decides to travel to her family's ancestral hometown in Italy, Bernalda, she takes her mother and children on the journey, and attempts to dig up stories much older than anyone left in town to little avail. A return journey, conducted solo, results in discovery of long lost relatives, ancient cave paintings, elaborate pasta dinners with spritzes and wine, and more than a little time amid crumbling documents in archives, all before finally finding what she was looking for, a truth more surprising than she imagined.
The B & C Treatment:
The premise behind this book, a journalist trekking to a small Italian town to track down the facts behind a more than century old family murder, had me intrigued from the start. In execution, the effort behind injecting drama into hours of reading through ancient documents showed a bit, and at times it felt the author might have been better served applying the story to a shorter format than a full-length book. However, the tale remained compelling, and once the research really got going, and the truth started to come out, the conclusion of the search was satisfying.
This book, out in paperback this month, would be particularly interesting for readers who are history buffs, especially those interested in Italian history, and I did enjoy learning about the often harsh past of the country, especially when it came to the region of Matera and the challenges faced by the mainly agrarian and impoverished population in the 18th and early 19th centuries. A former history major, I feel pretty well versed in America's checkered past, but it was interesting to dig in to the grey areas of another country's history, particularly a country I've mainly imagined as sunny. I also really enjoyed Stapinski's ability to paint vivid pictures of the ancient and sunwashed villages where she conducted her research, the colorful countryside and nearby sparkling sea. She also kept me hooked with mouthwatering descriptions of the toothsome Italian feasts she experienced: fresh asparagus, pickled artichokes, salty burrata, handmade sausages, tart lemon sorbet, fresh pasta, home baked bread with crushed tomatoes and olive oil, dried figs, and all the wine. Overall, the book was a worthy read, and a compelling history of a family and a small Italian village.
You may like Murder in Matera if you like:
Detail-oriented but compelling historical studies such as LaFayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell or In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson.