Renato After Alba, which was recently published by McPherson & Company and has received several independent publisher awards this year, is a bittersweet elegy of a novel. In it, Mirabelli gives us a new glimpse into the heart and soul of Renato Stillamare, an orphan of unknown origin adopted into a colorful Sicilian-American family who he introduced to us as the narrator of The Goddess in Love with a Horse and who became the protagonist, as a mature but vital, and rather conflicted gallery artist in Renato the Painter.
Now we have Renato as an older man, struggling to make sense of the sudden loss of his wife, Alba. Mirabelli employs the skills of descriptive narrative with aplomb, but the depth and breadth of this short book (188 loosely filled pages) is a special achievement, made more effective by its ostensibly narrow focus into the thoughts and feelings of one man for one year.
That the man is a ferociously talented painter, and that the year is possibly the most important one in his long life is what gives the book its kick. The tight narrative of the story is expanded by well chosen digressions into astrophysics, Italian culture, and small-business economics. But it is the quality of the writing that makes it great - with masterly craft that hides all its sweat to produce an immersive exposition of an inner life.
As with all excellent books, you can open Renato After Alba at any page and get lost in its flow of words. Here, they invoke the fugue of grief:
Sometimes it was me who had died and Alba who was living and I'd see her walking solitary in the quiet before sunset, walking slowly along the empty sidewalk in the little college where [our daughter] Skye and her family have their home, or I'd see her at the table in our kitchen where she had set out two or three yellow place mats, but only one dish, eating alone in the silent kitchen, and my heart would contract in pain.
And, here, they recall a long-ago family conversation:
"This French philosopher, Albert Camus, he thinks life is absurd," Zitti said. "Absurd and with no purpose."
"We make purposes as we go along," Nicolo said. "We keep changing that purpose, but the important thing is to have a purpose, a goal. Making progress toward our goal gives us pleasure, and as soon as we get there, we discover another goal, further ahead."
Aunt Marissa, his wife, said, "Always going and never arriving. I don't know if that's so good."
"The purpose of life is to work," my father declared. "Work saves more souls than Jesus."
Zitti continued, "Camus says that death makes life absurd and pointless."
"You think your mother's life was pointless?" Candida asked him.
"I didn't say that. We're talking about Camus' beliefs, not mine."
"Camus is absurd," Candida murmured.
"Maybe the poor man has no family life," my mother suggested.
Zitti shrugged and opened his hands, palms up, to show he didn't know what to make of any of this. "Or maybe he says those things simply because he's French."
As Mirabelli unfurls Renato's slow walk through desperation, his ever-present folly (after all, he is a man) and, ultimately, his decision to paint again, we walk with him in sympathy. This may be a book about grief - that's the peg it hangs on - but it is really, like all novels, simply a book about life and how we live it.
Despite his advanced age, Renato discovers something new along this journey: That we don't just live life by accident - we choose to live it. He may have arrived on a snowy doorstep in Lexington, Massachusetts, by accident, and his wife may have died by accident, but Renato's decision to go on is entirely his responsibility. That the book helps us truly understand his reasons is its gift.