A smell of unanswered questions and indefinite time

The movement between thought and action is fluid and events unfold through the eyes of different protagonists... because each sequence has main characters that predominate


I have known Lillian Sciberras for most of my adult life. I’ve known her as a soft-spoken, erudite, incredibly cultured person, living within an environment that always included books. As a librarian, and later on an academic in the field of library studies, Lillian lived and breathed books... not just the physical, paper and cardboard manifestation of them, but also their incredible significance as vehicles of knowledge; as prime movers of change and, at the same time, recorders of history.

I begin my piece in this way because the library is at the core of Lillian’s first short novel, Shadows in Penumbra, a wonderfully written account of a number of characters whose profiles smack rather brilliantly of parts of the life of the Lillian I know. And Lillian knows libraries, particularly the Bibliotheca in Valletta, that she describes so wonderfully as smelling “of unanswered questions, of indefinite time” – an aphorism so typical of the librarian/academic who queries and researches.

But before I go into the content of the novel, I need to say that the author’s turn of phrase is deliciously poetic. Lillian Sciberras is, after all, primarily a poet... a juggler with words and idioms, whose poetry is a delight. As I read Shadows in Penumbra I often had to stop and reread whole paragraphs just for the way they were written. Her descriptions of places, for example, are highly reminiscent of extracts from her poetry that I have enjoyed in the past. I mean, who but a poet would write: “The twilight is now receding in the west, surrendering to a stark and starlit sky, with the echoing undulation of a swell attempting to seduce the Vestal virgins on the shore below” (p.130). Or, the more idiosyncratic, “She described to me how, in spite of the dust that had settled, and the cobwebs that had been spun here and there, the light had caressed the walls as though some furtive painter, known only to the house, had just completed the brushwork.” (p.85). If the novel is to be read for nothing else (and there is plenty to interest the reader) it most definitely should be read for its cultured, cultivated and lush turn of phrase. I personally loved that.

The main character in the novel is one Zachary Thorne, a soldier before and during the war, an artist, then a librarian and finally an academic – a lecturer at University College London. His is the story that is told, but cocooned around it are many other stories that link with it in places, sometimes actual, at other times by benefit of the subject matter being discussed. So we also get to know of Francis Scerri, Thorne’s Maltese friend, owner of a stationery and father of the narrator of the novel (narrating all but a very small part at the end), Linda Scerri, who shares initials with the author of the book and is also a great lover of books, and a University academic. Other, very important characters, are Thorne’s daughter, Miranda, and his late-in-life friend, the Baron, a tramp he befriends in a quirky, but significant way. Secondary characters include the Chevalier (a librarian based on a real life person of the past, well known at the Bibliotheca in Valletta), Jessica, Zachary’s wife, historian and leader of a double life, Augustus Svensson, Miranda’s lover Sam, the Italian patrician (and Knight of Malta) Ludovico di Monfalcone, and, from real life, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Chronology is an essential part of the storytelling technique adopted by the author in this novel. The book is actually divided into phases that are not always entirely chronological, with a lot of flashbacks and discussions of past events. The story starts in 1938 and ends in 1989 – 51 years and two generations of the Thorne and Scerri families. Since the book is in two parts (‘Shadows’ and ‘Penumbra’) there is a revisiting of events from different viewpoints, so, though May 1989 is reached at the end of the first part, the second part starts with 1975.

Place is also at the core of this novel, and events move gracefully and significantly among Malta (particularly the St Julian’s area that Lillian Sciberras knows so well), Buenos Aires in Argentina, London in England, San Francisco in California, and Gothenburg in Sweden, with a few quick forays elsewhere as well. Each place has a particular significance to the story being told. Malta is the glue that brings the characters together, with the Thorne’s visits and eventual residency and their meetings and friendship with the Scerri family. Even Svensson (in his guise as the book thief Alphons Stahlberg) and Monfalcone met the Chevalier at the Bibliotheca in Valletta. Malta is where everything comes together. London belongs to the Thornes, and Buenos Aires to Zachary Thorne and Borges, San Francisco is Miranda Thorne’s and Gothenburg Svensson’s.

There is no actual “plot”... the story to be told is almost biographical, seemingly rambling in its unfolding, imitating admirably the memoirs mode of writing, describing, reflecting, posturing and questioning. The movement between thought and action is fluid and events unfold through the eyes of different protagonists... because each sequence has main characters that predominate.

Thorne hunts down documents pertaining to Senglean privateer Juan Bautista Azopardo, and Borges comes into the possession of documents belonging to UCL’s Jeremy Bentham. And there’s the case of Borges’ stolen novel manuscript... if the novel ever existed at all. And, of course, there are also the two incunabula missing from the Buenos Aires library. All intertwine to create a base of uncertainty and misgiving... casting shadows that themselves create a penumbra of doubt... the names of the parts of the book act as overarching metaphors that lead towards an ending that is not really an ending, but a continuation that comes to an end for the intents and purposes of the novel.

There is a lot of Lillian in this book, because it is about topics that she knows intimately, and in the process, her passion for them shines through the characters and the events. The characters themselves are whole beings, alive and rounded, carrying most of the narrative, defining the way forward for the story being told. And of course there’s the author’s excellent use of language for the reader to look forward to.

Shadows in Penumbra is an excellent first novel that augurs well for her future as a novelist and is highly recommended reading. Though it is the first, this should definitely not be Lillian Sciberras’ last foray into prose. I am already looking forward to her next offering.

Shadows in Penumbra by Lillian Sciberras is published by Horizons