Margaret Mazzantini is a multi-award winning Italian novelist, screenwriter (with her husband, director Sergio Casetellitto) and stage, film and television actress. Her third novel published in English, translated by Ann Gagliardi, is Morning Sea: When the Water is Safer Than the Land.

Like other novels written about in this blog, notably Love Without Hope by Rodney Hall and Augustown by Kei Miller, Morning Sea by Margaret Mazzantini illustrates great writing in several respects and can teach you in particular:

  • How to use a strong theme as a unifying force throughout your novel
  • How to hook the reader from the very beginning
  • How to create a sense of place and community, and
  • How to create poetry and rhythm through language.

Using a strong theme as a unifying force throughout the novel

During my recent two months’ long trip through Italy I read almost exclusively novels by Italian authors. I discovered that, in contrast to Australia, Italian novels centre on political issues, as Lisa Hill pointed out in her blog review of Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey.

One example is Margaret Mazzantini’s novel Morning Sea. Her focus is the refugee crisis. She braids the stories of two mothers and their teenage children in two different periods of time to show the impact of fleeing from home and living in exile on people’s lives.

During the days of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, Farid and his mother Jamila become ‘boat people’ on board an unsafe vessel making its way to Sicily. And while Vito looks out onto the water from Sicily, he remembers his mother’s stories of her and her parents’ expulsion from Libya, as part of Libya ordering its Italian ‘colonists’ out of the country when she was a young girl, and the long-lasting effect this ‘exile’ in Italy has had on her life and that of her parents.

The novel explores the experience of living in fear for your life, the measures people are prepared to take for their personal safety, and the impact of exile on personal identity and feeling ‘at home’.

Hooking the reader from the very beginning

In her first brief sentence, Mazzantini introduces one of her central protagonists while evoking the novel’s title: Farid has never seen the sea, never gone in.

That first sentence is followed by a passage in which Mazzantini shows her character Farid’s imagination and voice in prose filled with simile and metaphor:

    He’s imagined it many times. Dotted with stars like a pasha’s cloak, blue like the blue wall of the dead city. 

   He’s looked for fossilised seashells buried millions of years ago when the sea extended into the desert. He’s chased after fish lizards that swim beneath the sand. He’s seen the salty lake and the bitter lake and silvery camels advancing like shabby pirate ships. He lives in an oasis on the edge of the Sahara.

Creating a sense of place and community

Immediately after that passage, Mazzantini creates a sense of that oasis and the community of Farid’s ancestors, a tribe of Bedouin nomads, again using exquisite lyricism:

   They set up their tents in wadis, river beds covered with vegetation. The goats grazed; the wives cooked on fiery stones. They never left the desert. … They possessed nothing, only footprints, which the sand covered over. The sun moved the shadows. They were accustomed to withstanding thirst, drying out without dying.

Once one has finished reading this wonderful novel, one realises that this passage also sets up a juxtaposition to the present and the novel’s theme.


Morning Sea: When the Water is Safer Than the Land is an outstanding novel, which rewards the reader in many ways and shows how one can write about political issues in a deeply affecting way without being in any way didactic.

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