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Secrets of Sicily: Tell No One About These Books

Amy E. Robertson By Amy E. Robertson Published on July 19, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017
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Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon in The Leopard

Sure, everyone has heard of the Sicilian mafia, and who hasn’t watched The Godfather? (If you haven’t, stop reading this article and go watch the movie. The trilogy actually. Then come back and we can keep talking.)

Perhaps you even know that the Sicilian mafia is called “Cosa Nostra”, our thing, and that omertà – a code of silence about the Mafia’s activities—has long been an integral part of local culture. Is it this custom of silence that has kept so many from discovering Sicily’s secrets?

The island’s long list of traders, invaders and conquerors (Phoenicians, Vandals, Goths, Moors, Normans, Spaniards) each wove their own threads into the tapestry of Sicily’s history, leaving behind a culture that is rich and complex, and perhaps impossible for someone non-Sicilian to fully understand. These books can help, each giving glorious glimpses of Sicilian life behind closed doors.

Just promise me you’ll keep them our little secret...

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Much of the work by Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced sha-sha) touches on Sicily’s ethos of secrecy and suspicion. Born in 1921, Sciascia gained acclaim for his poems, essays, and novels that examine everything from Sicilian culture and literature, to international politics and homegrown Fascism. One stand-out is The Day of the Owl, published in 1960, a short fiction novel in which a captain of the carabinieri (Italy’s military police) from northern Italy finds himself in Sicily trying to solve a murder. This is Sciascia’s take on the mafia, highlighting the struggle between the search for truth and the protection of vested interests. Another must-read is The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of thirteen spare short stories that reveal Sicily through village life, emigration the mafia, and more. 

“…And the sound of the sea, like the wild-animal breath of the world itself, frightened them as it gasped and died at their feet.” – The Wine-Dark Sea
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The mafia also makes frequent appearances in the work of Andrea Camilleri, Sicily’s best-selling modern author. Although Camilleri has been writing since the 1940s, it is his relatively recent crime series starring the hard-drinking, heavy-eating Inspector Montalbano, that made him a star. The Shape of Water, the first in the series, was published in 2003, followed by The Terracotta Dog and The Snack Thief. As of 2017, 91-year-old Camilleri has written 25 novels and several short stories about the legendary Montalbano (the books even spawned a popular TV series). These light and fast-paced books are perfect for reading while lounging on Sicily’s golden shores. But as with many things Sicilian, food plays an important role, so please don’t read these while hungry.

“Montalbano felt moved. This was real friendship, Sicilian friendship, the kind based on intuition, on what was left unsaid. With a true friend, one never needs to ask, because the other understands on his own accordingly.” – The Snack Thief

Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), born in Agrigento, Sicily, was an important influence on both Sciascia and Camilleri. Writing novels, short stories, plays, and even poetry, Pirandello was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing plumbed the depths of the human condition, and he was considered an innovative dramatist; Six Characters in Search of an Author – a play in which a group of actors are preparing to rehearse for a Pirandello drama and are interrupted by the arrival of six characters—was his seminal work.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) is another Sicilian literary great, but unlike prolific Pirandello, is known for one major work; his singular novel, The Leopard, published only after his death. In it, Lampedusa takes us to Sicily of the 1860s and the decay of Sicilian aristocracy, through the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. Lampedusa was himself the last prince of the eponymous Sicilian island of Lampedusa, with intimate knowledge of the disintegration of Sicilian nobility. Sumptuous in language, melancholy in tone, The Leopard exploded in popularity when it was made into a movie in 1963.

“All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfillment: our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.” – The Leopard
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While Midnight in Sicily is not by a Sicilian author, it deserves a mention for its deeply-researched analysis of Sicilian culture, centered around the trial of well-known mafiosi. Author Peter Robb spent 14 years in southern Italy, and Midnight in Sicily traces the history of the Cosa Nostra (“our thing”) from the post-World War II era up to the 1990s, weaving in art, politics, history, and even literature (The Leopard is mentioned in chapter four).

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There are fewer female writers on this list, and Maria Messina’s powerful Behind Closed Doors gives insight as to why that might be. Born in Palermo in 1887, Messina wrote about Sicilian women at the turn of the century, painting a vivid—and depressing—picture of the lives of peasant and middle-class women, who were often shuttered in their home. Circumscribed by chores, poverty, and restrictive cultural norms, the women became virtual servants to the rest of the family, and were often left behind in the wave of mass emigration to escape the crushing poverty of the time.

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Author Dacia Maraini updates Messina’s work with a fictional take on women's marginalization in The Silent Duchess. Maraini is the daughter of a Sicilian princess and a Tuscan ethnologist, who spent several childhood years in Japan (including three years imprisoned in a concentration camp with her parents because her father refused to sign an act of allegiance to Mussolini's puppet republic of Salo), and her adolescence in the town of Bagheria, province of Palermo. Much of her writing explores abuses of power and its effect on women, including The Silent Duchess, her best-known work, which explores Sicilian culture through the lens of Marianna, an aristocrat who is both deaf and mute. First published in 1990, The Silent Duchess (called La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa in Italian) was awarded the Premio Campiello, Italy’s book of the year award.

“Her gaze dims as her nostalgia for Palermo overcomes her. Those smells of seaweed dried by the sun, of capers, of ripe figs, she will never find them anywhere else; those burnt and scented shores, those waves slowly breaking, jasmine petals flaking in the sun.” – The Silent Duchess

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Marginalization, mafia, intrigue, suspicions, food, village life, the human condition… Simonetta Agnello Hornby weaves all the threads together in The Almond Picker. Maria Rosalia Inzerillo was given the lowly nickname La Mennulara—the almond picker—for the work she performed to pay off her sister’s dowry. The story begins at her death, when the instructions Maria leaes behind for her obituary and funeral leaves her town reeling. Hornby gives us a glimpse of Sicily in the 1960s—aspects of which still resonates today.


Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.


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