On Persephone’s Island, a Sicilian Journal, by Mary Taylor Simeti, published by Vintage Departures, 1995.
This is an absorbing and evocative book for summer reading, especially if you are planning to visit Sicily. Simeti, born and brought up in New York, arrived in Sicily as a young graduate in October 1962, planning to work at the community centre set up by the social reformer Danilo Dolci. She eventually married a Sicilian academic and landowner whom she met at the centre, and they had two children.They set up home partly in Palermo and partly on his family estate at Bosco, about 30 miles outside the city.
The book is a memoir based on her journals, and structured season by season. The urban life in Palermo, where the family spent most of the time during the academic year, is contrasted with the rhythm of the agricultural year which ordered their life in the country. Simeti includes interesting details about local food and wine production, based on first hand experience, and describes how feast days were traditionally celebrated. It is a way of life that is disappearing yet there are still vestiges, especially in rural areas.
The author also discusses the turbulent and complicated history of the island – the Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman influences, the rich art and architecture dating from classical times, as well as the upheavals of World War 2 in the 40s, and the violence of Mafia atrocities in more recent years.
Reading ‘On Persephone’s Island’ would be of interest to a writer who is thinking about how to structure a memoir, the use of journals and how to combine those with wider, more general knowledge, as well as the importance of creating a vivid sense of place. Beautifully written, this book helps the reader to appreciate the fascinating and complex society that Simeti found herself part of, and how she came to love this island of such extreme contrasts, where she made her home.