Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst

A dense forest; a house on a hill; a beautiful woman pining for her husband and the music they once shared; her story simply told… Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst has the hallmarks of a fairy-tale, however, what transpires is a delicate and surprising reflection on grief and the things we do to go on living after losing the person we love most.

Madame Verona and her husband built a home for themselves, tucked away on forested hill slopes above a small village. There they lived in isolation, practising their music, and chopping enough wood to see them through the freezing winters.

Fire was the primary fruit of these trees and warmth was the harvest. After three years’ seasoning, the wood gave them the smell that all gods undoubtedly use as a perfume and heat that makes anything produced by electric devices look like a joke.

When her husband dies, Madame Verona sets herself a special project to honour his memory (I won’t say more than that because the project is incredibly poignant when it is revealed).

A memory of happiness that, in a more wistful key, could also be called happiness.

But there are two elements to this story – Madame Verona’s living grief and her decision to die when she chooses. One cold morning, she sets off down the village path, knowing that she won’t have the strength to climb the hill again.

The trees had their rings; Madame Verona did not begrudge her skin its wrinkles, the signature of all her days.

Verhulst brings the village to life with a series of sparkling vignettes – the town doctor who actually trained as a vet; the cow that became mayor; the miserly gentleman who wouldn’t share his cigars – although not related to Madame Verona’s story per se, they add to the sense of place and demonstrate how individuals in isolated communities band together – important, given Madame Verona’s self-imposed exile.

Verhulst’s descriptions of the snow, the forest and the winter are perfection – I’m always alert to writing about landscapes and there’s a fine balance between being descriptive and being overdone. Verhulst gets it right –

The sky had taken on the colour of an old mop and the birds on the branches were in congress about whether to stay or go, familiar harbingers of a long period of snow.

This story could have read as sentimental and maudlin but somehow, Madame Verona’s quiet resolution and her gratitude for a life lived with love, no matter how fleeting, avoids this and the outcome is charming.

4/5 A lovely choice, especially for novella-lovers.

Finally all present decided that the prospective mayors would need to look for something and – after even more palaver – that that something might as well be a turnip… Year after year the men ran through the streets like harried bulls, each obsessed with the idea of finding the turnip.

My favourite recipe featuring turnips is a salad (turnips, beetroot and edamame) but a salad doesn’t seem quite right for Madame Verona’s snowy hill-top cabin, so perhaps try turnip tartiflette which sounds like my kind of winter dish.

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10 responses

  1. I like the idea of being in charge of how you die. Fifteen ir twenty years ago I thought I would settle in a village and become well known in my corner of the bar but life (family) didn’t work out that way.

    • Since I’ve been doing some work in palliative care and exposed to the Voluntary Assisted Dying debate from a different angle, I’ve done lots of thinking about the way people die. Obviously it’s a very culturally specific thing (and we live in a death-denying culture) but even announcing your ‘preferred way out of this life’, such as your village and bar plan, I’m sure has people responding with “Don’t say that Bill!”. I don’t have any answers but I’m not afraid to talk about this stuff frankly, regardless of a person’s age (because that’s another issue – we aren’t supposed to talk about death and dying until we’re “really old”).

  2. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from The Poisonwood Bible to The Life and Death of Sophie Stark | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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