Malafrena: An Unromance

Monday 21 December 2020


** Warning: Ending spoiled**

THE COVER SCREAMS ADVENTURE STORY. Reviewers have called it her “dryest” story. The first few chapters suggest dark academia with a lot of talk of revolution while sitting down and eating cheese. What this Ursula K. Leguin novel is: a love story stiffled by a bigger, nobler, and tragically, pointless dream.  

Itale Sorde is young, rich and leaving home. He is renouncing his inheritance and running away to write about the factories and everything wrong in his country. But while his revolution takes up most of the pages of the novel, this is not a story of political intrigue. The exact conditions of the workers are scarcely depicted. Nor are we introduced to any high up opposing figures. There are no intricate strategizing scenes or big battles. It's all grand sweeping statements of Us versus Them in the name Liberty and Freedom as they lounge in coffee houses and dissect a book by a fellow visonary. An armchair revolution. 

A love story in a world that has no time for sentiment. 

The real story is the one left out. Itale's unexpressed feelings for his childhood friend, Piera. Her tears he mistakes for wind in her eyes. The Countess she knows to be his mistress without her ever having to say it. Excuse me for being a girl, but Malafrena is a romance. An unromance, if you will.

Page 343, second to last page, after all the cheese and talk of politics and being emprisoned and engaged to the wrong person and not expressing their feelings to one another, the confession: 

“I should like to be your friend.”
“You are,” he said almost inaudibly; but his heart said, your are my house, my home; the journey and the journey's end; my care, and sleep after care. 

That's it. The closest we get to a romance. An unspoken declaration. Quiet as a heartbeat. Then, they're interrupted and it's a regular afternoon again, “Have an apple, your face is purple,” and off they go somewhere, and the novel ends there. 

If the characters are unfeeling, if nothing happens, if no one's says anything to one another, it makes the heartbreak all the more felt. Because it is not, cannot, be said. It is only betrayed in gestures.

“Why write a romance about an unromantic people?” coyly asks Le Guin through one of her characters. If the characters are unfeeling, if nothing happens, if no one's says anything to one another, it makes the heartbreak all the more felt. Because it is not, cannot, be said. Only betrayed in gestures.

Just like Tehanu is a quiet novel about domestic life in a world of heroes, Malafrena is a love story in a world that has no time for sentiment. 

And so, I can't help but appreciate the infuriating emotions the ending creates. The tone of the story has been leading up to it all along. 

I especially like the aesthetics of how it 'fades out' in banal dialogue. A day in a life. But by God, life is short. Piera and Itale's story ran out of pages. Read this as warning not to take matters of the heart so spinelessly! 

My favourite line: 

“How can I turn my back on all the rest?”
“The rest?”
“The darkness,” Piera said, looking up from her work. “Air. Space. The wind, the night. I don’t know how to say it, Laura! The things you can’t trust, the things that are too big for you, that don’t care about you. I am just learning what that is and what I am, and I can’t leave it, give it up, not yet!” 

If you like realistic stories set in make-believe countries, you might also like Last Letters From Hav

Cover: Ilya Repin. They did not expect him. 1884-88. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


  1. Brilliant review. An unromance, and yet it says so much about real love, for which our "romantic" notions are only a screen and a distraction. Thanks for writing about it so beautifully.

  2. Having followed you here from Lory Hess's review I'm glad to have read your own take on this, and especially your insightful categorising it as an unromance. In my review on my blog,, I tried to avoid spoilers, and that included any suggestion of particular relationships (because I always feel that's up to an innocent reader to come across -- at least as far as my initial critiques are concerned). Of course, that doesn't necessarily apply to classics, though Malafrena must be fast approaching that status!


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