The Invention of Sicily by James MacKay – Review

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By Sandra Callard

Sicily, now a popular tourist destination just off the coast of Southern Italy, has suffered a brutal and tumultuous past. It is geographically positioned firmly between two continents, resulting in a Middle Eastern metropolis on the edge of Europe. This situation has left it open to countless intruders, mainly with malign intent, and latterly from tourists, myself amongst them, who can marvel and enjoy its present beauty and history.

This latest book about the island, The Invention of Sicily by Jamie Mackay, is an outstanding scholarly publication. Ranging through early antiquity to the present day, it is a massive time range to cover. The author here, amazingly, treats it like a walk in the park and has a beautifully flowing and understandable prose which enables people like me, who only know Sicily from the point of view of pleasure, to understand, and indeed, wonder, how on earth the island has survived its horrific past and come to rest in the way it has – even taking a stand against the Cosa Nostra, or Mafia who are still active on the island.

The general mass of Sicilians have always been downtrodden, at the mercy of the Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Arabs and even Christians as Catholic armies emerged at the behest of the Pope to get rid of any infidels on the island and support the upper classes. Champions of the masses have made their mark for the underdogs, the Italian Garibaldi, the British politician William Bentinck and Karl Marx being amongst them, but their efforts, whilst certainly deserving praise, eventually left the poor as they had always been, hungry, beaten and accepting of their lot.

the invention of sicily james mackay book review cover“Glorious and intelligent”

The scope of Mackay’s knowledge and presentation is astounding, and whilst, as a lover of British history but a mere amateur regarding that of the Mediterranean area, Mackay makes it understandable. His text is exciting and alive, and brings attention to subjects that are not usually known in England but which cast a light on our own history as the world becomes ever more accessible to the politician, the soldier, the traveller and the reader.

Despite the countless invasions that Sicily has suffered it is still a robust and ever changing society. It is on the cusp of so many nationalities, most of whom have made their mark on the island, as has also the fiery and still potent volcano of Mount Etna, whose eruption some years ago I was both horrified and fascinated to see when I visited the town of Taormina, twenty miles from Etna.

Sicily has been at the centre of the refugee influxes which many countries are currently attempting to cope with. Due to its unique position and a long coastline it has, and has always had, countless refugees approach its shores. Sicilians have always rescued these if their boats become unworthy and drowning is imminent, and even taken refugees into their own homes. Their hospitality and bravery was put to the test when immigrants and life saving attempts by the Sicilians became so numerous that the government outlawed their attempts. The usually servile Sicilians emphatically refused to do this, and carried on their life saving attempts when necessary, risking fines or imprisonment. However, the government had overstepped the mark and that particular law was forced to be rescinded.

The Invention of Sicily is a glorious and intelligent foray into this little known island and the very individual people who live there. It requires concentration and quite a lot of checking on personalities to come to grips with the many sensational events, but it is so worth it to read such a scholarly piece which is written in such a way that the lay person can understand, appreciate and enjoy the work.

‘The Invention of Sicily’ by James MacKay is published by Verso, £16.99 hardback


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