Dominic Smith rose to fame with 2016’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a novel I enjoyed but failed to bond with. Return to Valetto redresses the scales, for this is a reading bounty that feels like an old-fashioned novel from my childhood (I was going to say it is redolent of Somerset Maugham, but my memory of his works is so vague by now that such a statement would be spuriously specific). The story is assembled quickly but from then on, the pace is measured. There is one plot revelation or twist (no surprise really) but no final surprises. A large cast of characters is allowed to insinuate itself into the readers’ mind through scene after perfect scene. The setting, the ten-person near-abandoned village of (imaginary) Valetto in Umbria, is vividly brought to life, with food in particular part of most scenes. The protagonist, an academic who has lost his mother and his wife, travels to Valetto to live in his mother’s bequeathal, a cottage amongst his aunts’ and near-centenarian grandmother’s abodes, only to find a woman squatting in his cottage, with a claim of ownership reaching back into the terrors of fascist wartime Italy. The author exhibits a masterful control of the returnee’s perspective, from which the entire novel is told (no character switches, no flashbacks); only slowly do we realize his flaws. A final climax takes half the novel to get there and is worth the wait. Amongst my 2023 reading, Return to Valetto is an unexpected gem.