Book Review: ‘Soul of the Border’ by Matteo Righetto

A beautiful novel that encapsulates nature at its toughest and humanity at its strongest

The tail end of the 19th century. The Vento region of Northern Italy. This is when and where the de Boer family are living, growing tobacco and working on the mountainous terraces. Life is hard, and every year the father of the family, Augusto, undertakes a perilous journey through the Italian Alps to smuggle tobacco across the border into Austria. He decides to take his daughter Jole with him, teaching her all the skills she needs to survive this trip, such as how to navigate the rocky terrain and valleys while avoiding the nocturnal beasts and hostile customs officers. Augusto mysteriously never returns from one of these trips and it is Jole who must retrace their steps alone three years later. Accompanied only by her horse, Samson, she treks across the beautiful rugged landscape, hoping to provide for her family and discover the truth about her father’s disappearance.

The prose of this novel was absolutely beautiful and made my reading of it so much more enjoyable. The way Righetto describes people and nature is captivating; the words and sentences flow so easily that it wasn’t long before I was swept up into the story and became attached to the characters. One of my favourite elements of this book is Righetto’s descriptions of the natural landscape. It is hostile and treacherous, and as you traverse the mountains with Augusto and Jole, you feel like them on the edge of a precipice. Simultaneously, the natural world is stunning and I sometimes found it hard to believe that any plants or animals could survive and thrive in such an environment. The forests and skylines allowed me to be completely immersed in this world and the depictions of birdsong and wolves howling made my reading experience all the more atmospheric.

The character of Augusto is truly inspirational in his care and devotion to his family, especially in times of hardship. No matter how severe the weather or how unlucky the de Boers’ seem to be, Augusto’s optimism and faith never falters; he just keeps pushing forward to provide for his family. Jole’s eagerness to travel with her father on the smuggling trip was bittersweet to read; her age makes her so innocent and naïve, but also evokes a degree of respect in the reader because she’s the eldest child and therefore feels a sense of responsibility. She’s just like her father in this respect as all she wants to do is help her father to sustain her mother and siblings. Jole’s courage and bravery to journey alone is heart-warming and uplifting because she assumes the role of Augusto and seeks to discover what happened to him. Her undying belief that her father is alive is additionally touching and understandable.

The de Boer family’s way of life overall is so different to our own, not just in terms of location but also in terms of what they want in life. Shelter, food and company is all they feel they really need, and I could not help but compare my family’s life, which is fast and busy, to the de Boers’ mode of living, which is tough but simple. Such a family made me realise how ridiculously commercialised and materialistic modern life is and after reading this book, it has made me want to take a step back and re-assess what’s important to me.

Righetto does not stop with just the de Boer family, however. He examines humanity as a whole, particularly when Jole is searching for her father and smuggling tobacco alone. It soon became apparent to me that the borders Righetto describes are not just geographical, but metaphorical, as he depicts people on both sides of the border between good and evil. Such a border is not so clearly demarcated either and I think its fluidity in this novel accurately reflects human beings in our modern world today.

Overall, Soul of the Border is a beautiful novel that encapsulates nature at its toughest and most stunning, and humanity at its strongest and most uplifting. You will be transported back to a time when things were simpler and to a landscape that is seemingly out of this world.

Rating: 5/5

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