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Esmond and Ilia

Esmond and Ilia

An Unreliable Memoir

by Marina Warner

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Marina Warner’s father, Esmond, met her mother, Ilia, while serving as an officer in the British Army during the Second World War. As Allied forces fought their way north through Italy, Esmond found himself in the southern town of Bari, where Ilia had grown up, one of four girls of a widowed mother. The Englishman approaching middle age and the twenty-one-year-old Italian were soon married. Before the war had come to an end, Ilia was on her way alone to London to wait for her husband’s return and to learn how to be Mrs. Esmond Warner, an Englishwoman.

Ilia begins to learn the world of cricket, riding, canned food, and distant relations she has landed in, while Esmond, in spite of his connections, struggles to support his wife and young daughter. He comes up with the idea of opening a bookshop, a branch of W.H. Smith’s, in Cairo, where he had spent happy times during the North African campaign. In Egypt, however, nationalists are challenging foreign influences, especially British ones, and before long Cairo is on fire.

Deeply felt, closely observed, rich with strange lore, Esmond and Ilia is a picture of vanished worlds, a portrait of two people struggling to know each other and themselves, a daughter’s story of trying to come to terms with a past that is both hers and unknowable to her. It is an “unreliable memoir”—what memoir isn’t?—and a lasting work of literature, lyrical, sorrowful, shaped by love and wonder.

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On June 28, 2022, Marina Warner discussed Esmond and Ilia with biographer and critic Frances Wilson. This virtual event is part of New York Review Books’ ongoing series with Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore.

Additional Book Information

Series: New York Review Books
ISBN: 9781681376448
Pages: 432
Publication Date:


The book, largely constructed from documents, family stories and imaginative projection, recaptures a worldly, decadent atmosphere.
Washington Post “Top 50 Nonfiction Books of the Year"

In each chapter, Warner grounds us in history and then flies off on the wings of poesy, writing dialogue and rendering psychology like a novelist. . . . Esmond and Ilia is a book of desire and its frustrations: the excitement of romance but also its curdling; the archival fever that takes over, that enlivens and maddens the historian.
—Anthony Domestico, Commonweal Magazine

Esmond and Ilia lacks a fairy-tale ending—after all, it’s about real life—but it is nonetheless wondrously entertaining, an ideal book for a long, hot summer.
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Warner is an expert on all facets of myth, legend and fairy tale, whose writings have explored everything from Ovid to the Brothers Grimm to the Arabian Nights. As such, it makes sense that even a personal work recounting eight years of her parents’ life should be envisioned as a story of the power of narrative, the clash of cultures and the role of the heroine, told by means of lore, symbols and allegory. . . . In recounting the story of these early years of the couple’s marriage, Warner weaves together fact and fiction in the most dazzling and inventive ways.
—Lucy Scholes, New York Times

Ms. Warner. . . knows that every family story is also a fairy tale, if told the right way; just as every fairy tale gains its purchase in the imagination through its overlap with lived reality. . . . With Esmond and Ilia, her memoir-cum-fable of the hoopoe and the porpoise, Ms. Warner has reopened the window that slammed down so abruptly on her childhood’s golden age, and let the light back in.
—Liesl Schillinger, Wall Street Journal

An entrancing weave of memoir, history, autobiography and fiction, this adventurous book voyages through time and space to rediscover, reimagine and reinvent a lost world. One of Marina Warner’s most beautiful works.
—Michèle Roberts

Warner is such a skillful and imaginative writer that much of . . . the book reads like lived experience. . . . The happiest of concoctions, a mix of fiction and fact, observation and speculation. . . . This brave, painful, dazzling memoir is riveting.

Wonderful—a brave, inventive, touching distillation of memory and imagination, shimmering with images, sounds and scents, conjuring a clash of lives, worlds and words.
—Jenny Uglow

Poignant and mythical.
New Statesman

High-risk and multidimensional . . . Warner brings to these pages a lifetime of thinking about stories and the ways in which they shape our lives.
Literary Review

This is a wonderfully rich, partly mythical memoir that sifts through the past to connect a family’s secrets to the deep-rooted colonial assumptions that still resonate in a post-Brexit Britain . . . Never dull . . . Eloquent and heartbreaking.

Poignant and exquisitely crafted, [Esmond and Ilia] is bound to become a classic.
—Catriona Seth

As delicate as the lace her mother hemmed, as sharp as the facets of the diamond rings her mother lost, Marina Warner’s [Esmond and Ilia] is a captivating re-creation of her childhood in a lost Cairo, so incomparably louche, sensuous and fragrant, and of her parents’ improbable marriage.
—Ferdinand Mount

A poignant and imaginatively transgressive exploration of her parents’ marriage, a war-time love match between Southern Italy and upper class England . . . Evocative.
—Margaret Drabble

Her range of talents is astounding. . . [Esmond and Ilia is] glorious.
—Leo Robson, The New Statesman

Talismanic objects—handmade English brogues, nasturtium sandwiches, an Egyptian cigarette tin—prove the perfect springboard for Warner’s superb visual imagination and historical acumen in this fine memoir, which touchingly evokes, in vivid sensual detail, the irreconcilable contradictions in her parents’ lives within the complex postwar cultural milieus they traversed.
—Victoria Nelson

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