We’ll Never Tell Them
By Fiorella de Maria
252 pages, $16.95
To order: ignatius.com,
In We’ll Never Tell Them, Fiorella de Maria draws readers into the the lives of Kristjana and Liljana, two Maltese orphans. At a crucial turning point in her life, Kristjana, a nurse living in modern-day London, leaves her life in England behind and seeks refuge working in a Catholic hospital in Jerusalem. The nuns assign Kristjana to care for Leo, a cancer patient who is dying alone in a strange country. Kristjana and Leo are both alone in a foreign country, and the nuns hope that their shared Maltese ethnicity will comfort Leo in his last days as well as help heal Kristjana’s unspoken pain.
During her days with Leo, the elderly man tells Kristjana about the life of his mother, Liljana. Leo describes the harrowing experiences of Liljana’s early life in Malta, the years she spent at an Edwardian boarding school and her time as a nurse during World War I.
Like de Maria’s earlier novels, We’ll Never Tell Them deals with issues of sin and pain. In her formative years, Liljana endures more suffering than it seems possible for one person to experience in a lifetime — let alone before the age of 12.
De Maria also deals skillfully with the issue of ethnocentrism — the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own race or religion. The British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries was especially guilty of an intense belief that the only correct way of life was the British way, and people were mistreated in their colonies as a result. De Maria does not spell out this issue, but Liljana’s interaction with English characters on the island of Malta deftly illustrates it.
In one harrowing episode, an influential English woman accuses Liljana of stealing a book. She refuses to believe that her husband lent Liljana the book. Because Liljana isn’t an Anglo-Saxon, the woman chooses to believe she is a “dirty thief” and responds with derision to the idea that Liljana can read.
Kristjana, who was born in Malta but also grew up as an orphan in England, relates to Liljana on a fundamental level. Both girls had experienced prejudice and pain in their childhood, but Kristjana’s background made her afraid to live her life and engage with others, for fear of being hurt. As Leo tells the story of his mother’s life with obvious love and tenderness, Liljana becomes increasingly more real to Kristjana — even to the point where she feels like she has entered into Liljana’s life. And it is in learning about Liljana’s life and coming to care for Leo deeply that Kristjana decides to stop running from her life.
We’ll Never Tell Them is de Maria’s best novel yet. I have read three of her four novels — only three have been published in the United States by Ignatius — with great interest, sympathizing with each of the Maltese characters she has created, but her prose in this novel has reached new levels. While I was reading about Liljana, I almost forgot I was reading a novel; I felt Liljana’s pain and joy intensely; I finished the novel crying. De Maria succeeds in imparting themes of sin and redemption without preaching. She simply tells the story of engaging Catholic characters in a way that reminds me of Norwegian author Sigrid Undset and leaves the readers to ascertain the message on their own.
Ella Hadacek studies history at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.