My rating: 4 stars
Daphne du Maurier employed a variety of writing tones in The Flight of the Falcon, showing how versatile she could be. If the first chapters are characterised by a funny undertone, in the rest of the book the first-person narration assumes a much more introspective, mysterious and tense quality. As past and present start to mingle, the story becomes puzzling and even confusing at times. In order to keep a secret alive, one of the characters is not as explored as his backstory and mental state asked for.
Armino, the narrator of the novel, is a tour guide in Italy. He works for Sunshine Tours, a company that organises visits around the country. At the beginning of the book, he is with a group of English and American tourists in Rome. While at the hotel, one of the tourists invites him to his room. Although the narrator clearly refuses the offer, the man still slips a 10 thousand lire note into his hand trying to convince him. Armino decides to give the money to a woman they saw sleeping at the door of a church early on. When she holds his hand, he has a strange feeling and runs away.
The following day, a piece in the newspaper says that the same woman was killed and nothing was found in her possession besides a few coins. The moment he sees her body, Armino realises that the woman is Marta, who worked for his family when he was a child. That realisation makes him want to return to Ruffano, his hometown, a place he left with his mother when he was just eleven years old. Both his father, who was the superintendent of the town’s palace, and his brother Aldo died during the German occupation.
As Armino wanders around Ruffano, he recalls moments from his past, which becomes a puzzle full of missing pieces. The past starts feeding into the present. After accepting a temporary job as an assistant at the library of the local university, Armino thinks he sees his brother’s ghost while walking around town. It’s not only his family’s past that gains more relevance in the novel, though, but also the story of Duke Claudio, who was known as The Falcon and lived more than 500 years before.
The development of the plot is accompanied by a change in the tone of the narration. At the beginning of the novel, there are many humorous considerations. Armino’s comments about the tourists, the English in particular, are hilarious (and very familiar for a south European).
“Apart from this, beef give very little trouble, though in their desire to seek the sun they blister more readily than other nationalities. Bare-armed, bare-legged, they’re into cotton frocks and shorts the first day of the tour, turning brick-red in the process.”
After Armino’s arrival in Ruffano, the book becomes less funny, assuming a much more meditative, enigmatic and tense tone. His feelings about his return are evocatively and believably conveyed.
“Once more I had the strange impression that I was a ghost returned, or not even a ghost, some disembodied spirit of long ago, and that there, in the darkened house, Aldo and I lay sleeping. We used to share a room, until he was promoted to one of his own. Not a chink of light showed tonight from the fastened shutters. I wondered who lived there now, if indeed the house was inhabited at all. Somehow it seemed to me forlorn, reproachful.”
Although Armino is the protagonist and narrator of the book, he is not the most interesting character in the story, maybe because his personality is the clearest. Despite occasionally acting as a twat, he has a good moral compass. We can conclude that from his thoughts and conversations with other characters. One of them is Carla Raspa, whose sassiness is amazing but who has some thorny views. The name of the most enigmatic character has to remain unsaid, however. His state of mind and behaviours are not explored enough, probably in order to keep the mysteries alive until close to the end. There was so much more I wanted to know about the characters, but since the narrator doesn’t entirely grasp what’s going on with some of them, for almost all of the book neither do readers.
Armino not fully understanding the social interactions in the new Ruffano is probably also the reason why the extent of the conflict between the students of the arts and economics faculties seems farfetched. The hate between them lacks a comprehensible reason for a long while, only becoming clearer close to the end.
The Flight of the Falcon is not one of Daphne du Maurier’s best novels. Nevertheless, it keeps readers engaged and curious about what has been happening around Ruffano. The ending is full of tension and makes readers wonder about the mental health of one of the characters.