The Secret of Villa Alba by Louise Douglas



1968, Sicily. Just months after a terrible earthquake has destroyed the mountain town of Gibellina, Enzo and his wife Irene Borgata are making their way back to the family home, Villa Alba del Ciliegio, on roads overlooked by the eerie backdrop of the flattened ghost town. When their car breaks down, Enzo leaves his young wife to go and get help, but when he returns there is no trace of Irene. 

Present Day. True crime aficionado Milo Conti is Italy’s darling, uncovering and solving historic crimes for his legion of fans. When he turns his attention to the story of the missing Irene Borgata, accusing her husband of her murder, Enzo’s daughter Maddi asks her childhood friend, retired detective April Cobain, for help to prove her father’s innocence. But the tale April discovers is murky: mafia meetings, infidelity, mistaken identity, grief and unshakable love.  


When April Cobain, a retired police detective, gets a call from her old friend Maddalena Borgata pleading for help in clearing her father’s name, she is astounded as she and Maddi had a falling out years before and have had no contact since. April, also newly widowed, is reluctant to got to Italy but she has strong memories of Enzo Borgata’s kindness towards her and she cannot abandon the family in their time of need.

Enzo’s second wife, Irene, disappeared without a trace in the 1960s and the mystery has recently been dug up by Milo Conti, a true crime presenter, who is openly claiming to have evidence Enzo murdered Irene. As the story gains traction, the Borgata family find themselves the focus of unwelcome media attention that threatens to expose long hidden secrets.

When April arrives at the Villa Alba she is shocked by its state of disrepair and the fact the Borgata family seems to have fallen on hard times. As she questions the inhabitants about the fateful day in 1968, April soon realises there are discrepancies in their stories that were never pursued by the original investigators. The villa itself seems full of secrets as April can feel Irene’s presence everywhere, particularly in the missing woman’s dressing room which has been left as it was the day she disappeared. There are lot of Rebecca influences at work here but Villa Alba is no Manderley.

The Rebecca overtones continue in the 1960s chapters where Irene becomes the narrator and recounts her side of the story. The style of these chapters is initially confusing as it seems Irene is telling her story to her first love who died rescuing a child from the Thames. A heartbroken Irene meets Enzo while he is visiting England and she accepts his proposal of marriage as she feels she has no other prospects. Irene’s arrival at the Villa Alba is met with hostility from Enzo’s mother and she finds it hard escaping the shadow of Enzo’s first wife. However, Irene’s love for horses endears her to Enzo’s father and she spends most of her time at the stables, especially when Enzo is away on business.

The Villa Alba that Irene knows is beautiful and elegant, however it seethes with secrets as mysterious men come and go at all times of the day. Irene is shocked when she learns the Borgata family have links to the mafia but she soon learns that’s how things work in Sicily and it is better not to cause waves. As Irene’s story draws ever closer to the earthquake that devastates the area, she is increasingly unhappy with her marriage and is starting to fear her husband who suspects she may be having an affair. Enzo just wants them to have a child but is frustrated by Irene’s lack of enthusiasm.

When the earthquake finally hits the region, whole towns are destroyed with hundreds of inhabitants killed or injured. Villa Alba is relatively unscathed but Irene is severely injured when a building at the stables collapses on her. The sequence of events is left hazy to prolong the mystery but Irene’s injuries are the reason she and Enzo are driving back to the villa on the day she disappears. Unfortunately, Irene’s disappearance doesn’t turn out to be as much of a mystery as it should be as it is blindingly obvious what happened.

The real star of this book is the astoundingly beautiful Sicilian scenery and the author exploits it to its full advantage. The descriptions of the ruined town of Gibellina and the Cretto di Alberto Burri had me searching the internet for more information, and it was fascinating reading. The Cretto isn’t the prettiest piece of art ever created but the sentiment behind it cannot be faulted.