You come across the shell of a ruined house. It could be anywhere in Southern Europe where people once lived and then moved away because there was no work to hold them there. You might find things scattered in the empty rooms: a bread oven, a broken spade, earthenware jars that still hold the pungent scent of olive oil; even clothes left hanging in a cupboard, a silent clock on a shelf, a picture cut from a newspaper pinned on a wall.
The house is remote, but it is surrounded by a tracery of thin paths. One path goes steeply down to a village, others zigzag their way to scattered huts and stone shelters, to caves where you could hide in times of danger and to unexpected lookout points from where you could watch the approach of animals or human intruders.
Julia Blackburn and her husband moved to a little house in the mountains of northern Italy in 1999. She arrived as a stranger, but a series of events brought her close to the old people of the village. They began to tell her stories that made the landscape come alive, repopulating it with their vivid memories. Until quite recently most of them had been mezzadri,
half-people who were trapped in an archaic feudal system and owned by a local padrone who demanded his share of all they had – even a pretty wife or daughter. They were eager to talk about the old way of life and about how everything changed with the eruption of the Second World War.
This village was at the heart of the conflict between the fascists and the partisans, so they learnt a lot about death and fear and hunger and how men and women could hide like foxes in the mountains. ‘Write it down
for us,’ they said, ‘because otherwise it will all be lost.’
Thin Paths is a celebration of the Songlines of one place that could be many places; it is also a celebration of the humour and determination of the human spirit.
Shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Ondaatje Prize.
‘A lyrical patchwork of fine-grained nature writing’ - Independent
‘Marvellous…her writing is as eloquent and elegant as ever’ - Literary Review
‘Impossible to forget…beautiful and deeply humane’ - Sunday Times