Thin Paths is a beautiful and original book, arising spontaneously from Julia Blackburn's response to a small mountain valley in Italy.
The natural world, the people she befriends and the relationship with her partner are her own love story. All are observed with a kind of spiritual intensity that is deeply moving. They buy a small house, explore abandoned villages, try to rediscover lost paths. She learns Italian talking to the old folk and recording the lives of poor, uneducated people and their feudal pre-war existence. They urge her to write it down for them because otherwise it would be lost.
The villagers tell stories of unimaginable poverty and hardship. Multi-tasking is given a whole new aspect with the description of a woman walking the rocky paths with a baby in a basket on her head, a pack on her back and a goat attached to her wrist by a rope, knitting socks as she walks. When Blackburn’s husband becomes ill, the fortitude of her new friends sustains her, and she learns an acceptance of death as part of life. The villagers recall their sense of comfort dreaming of a loved one waiting for them on the other side.
They talk about their wartime experiences, so tragic and bitter most prefer never to think about it. They were tormented by the Fascists, who ransacked their houses for food and routed out the Partisans, torturing and killing them in front of their children. This precious record of a particular world and time has a profound universality. And in telling the tale of the tribe she finds her own path.
Rosemary Bailey is the author of Love and War in the Pyrenees, out now, published by Phoenix.