Book Review #1 – If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

by Rachel S

            Because I suddenly got the compulsion to do this, I’ve decided to broaden my repertoire and start reviewing books that I read. I love reading, I love thinking about what I’m reading, and I particularly love talking to people about the things that I read. Since I’m starting to annoy the people I know in real life, I’m going to start bothering the internet with it.

            As a disclaimer, I do not have an English degree. I didn’t even take Rhetoric at university because I was qualified to skip it with exam scores. I don’t even know how to do a proper book review. My opinion on these books is therefore one of a casual reader. Pretty much.

            If you have sudden feelings about what I say, or want to send me recommendations of books to read, then please leave a comment below or use the contact function on the WordPress site! I may one day in the future put up an email address, but who knows.


“The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still-vague thunder, the historical story along with the individual’s story, a novel that gives the sense of living through an upheaval that still has no name, has not yet taken shape…” (Italo Calvino, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler)


            I had the title of this book written down as a note to myself for about a year before I suddenly realized that libraries exist and I had the free time to read a book. It existed only as a note for so long that I’m fuzzy on where exactly the recommendation came from. I’m pretty certain, however, that I stumbled across it in a bookshop in Kensington and wrote down the title because I was too broke to buy it after weeks of traveling.

            Anyway, to put it shortly, this book is fantastic. It may actually be the most metaphysical novel I’ve ever read in my life. Even though it’s in translation, the book itself continuously and elegantly points out all the mechanisms and devices that make up the story that it is trying to tell, and how the Reader (you, addressed directly in the second person, in both Male and Female forms) interacts with them. On top of that, the narration that binds you as a reader to the unfolding of the story also fluidly covers the many different ways that books, stories (particularly novels, and translations), authors, and fellow readers are loved, lived, dissected, or just plain torn apart by the readers themselves.

            It’s jarring to suddenly be given agency as a reader, or to have your own interaction with a novel so explicitly pointed out, but it brings out all these relationships in reading that I’d never thought too hard about before, so I’m all for it.

            Calvino also pretty dexterously pulls together what appears to be an absolute cacophony of smaller, unrelated stories into a broad narrative that hits a lot closer to home than you would initially believe. It’s for this reason I pulled out the quote above – the story itself emerges slowly, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, and if you have the patience to wait for it its totally worth it. The novel has the air of chasing something ephemeral, that you can’t quite understand but know it will all make sense when you finally catch up. It’s a journey, and a fascinating and worthwhile one at that.

            My only drawback was that it gives you a little bit of conceptual whiplash in the later parts of the book, when more moving parts are added to the larger narrative on top of the short snippets the Reader is given to read. However, on the whole this is a personal issue (I’m a horrifically fast reader, to the point of almost skimming things, so I tend to come up for air fifteen pages later and sort of go “how the hell did I get here?”).

            On the whole: gorgeous. If you enjoyed Cloud Atlas and want something with a similar structure but will force you out of your comfortable isolated reader-zone definitely go for this one.


The Hard Facts:

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino, Trans. William Weaver, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. (published originally in Italian in 1979).