Part-travelogue, part-art history, part-personal reflection, Hisham Matar’s “A Month in Siena” could easily be seen as something of an antidote if you have been reading too much fiction and are seeking something different just to break things up. Indeed, in a way that is how Matar sees his trip to Italy; an opportunity to fill-in time between finishing one book and starting the next project.
Intensely personal, Matar portrays what is it like to spend time alone in a foreign place and absorb yourself in something you love – in his case art of the Siena School. It is a compact book with constant themes not only of art but of walking Siena and Matar’s relationship with his past – the culture and difficulties of that past, and the loss of his father. In the case of the latter, I did not find his preoccupation and grief as prevalent as might be suggested by the blurb on the back cover of my Penguin edition – but it was always there.
Given it’s slimness, “A Month in Siena” is a book that could be read in a single sitting. For me that is both a strength and a weakness, and I finished it wishing it were longer, feeling I could have taken a little more of Siena (which I know a little myself). I would have liked a greater sense of the passage of time as, to be honest, this was not as strong as it could have been. And there is little interaction with other people – not surprising given Matar confesses that he spoke to almost no-one. His reluctant excursion to visit an old friend was, to my palette, the kind of episode that lifted the book; but if there were few such notable incidents, then he could hardly invent them.