Marina Warner

The Lost Father


Vintage (paperback) UK, 1987
Simon & Schuster (hardback) US, 1987,
(Regional Winner (Eurasia) in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, Booker Prize shortlist
Translated into Norwegian, Dutch, German, Italian and French

Like Visconti’s film The Leopard, this magnificent novel paints in sensuous colours the story of a family. It brings to new life the ancient disparaged south of the Italian peninsula, weakened by emigration, silenced by fascism.

According to family legend, David Pittagors died as a result of a duel. His death is the mysterious pivot around which his grand-daughter, an independent modern woman, constructs an imaginary memoir of her mother’s background and life. She follows the family as they emigrate to New York – where they find only humiliation and poverty – and after their return to Italy in the 1920s. As she is drawn by the passions and prejudices of her imagination, we see how family memory, like folk memory, weaves its own dreams.

The Lost Father was reviewed by Patrick Parrinder alongside Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and David Lodge’s Nice Work in the LRB Vol. 10, No.17 (29 September 1988). The full review, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here’ is available to read here.

The Lost Father is a subtle, lyrical novel, with the suggestion of an outrageous leg-pull about it. Though there is nothing Shandean about Warner’s approach, she is telling a cock-and-bull story of sorts (and an excellent one) … The Lost Father shows a compelling imagination at odds with a sceptical and troubled intelligence: but it also contains more humdrum matter, and some potentially useful digressions.

Lucy Scholes wrote about The Lost Father for the Booker Prize website in March 2023, available to read here. Scholes writes:

A lush and densely-drawn inter-generational saga about the mythology and mystery that defines an Italian family, The Lost Father was the novel that established Warner’s reputation as a writer who was equally skilled and as comfortable writing fiction as she was non-fiction. It won widespread critical praise even before the Booker shortlist was announced. It possesses all ‘the pleasures of a literary crossword puzzle’, declared The Guardian. ‘An ambitious novel of rare imaginative power,’ praised the Independent. ‘Marina Warner’s fiction has a slow, dreamy quality that is at once pleasurable and slightly sinister – as in those dreams where you’re mysteriously tethered to one spot, condemned to wander in circles,’ was Lorna Sage’s especially perceptive description in the TLS. Not only is The Lost Father circular in structure – it’s that most devilish of conceits; a novel within a novel – it’s a story about what it means to continually circle a particularly potent and redolent family legend.


‘Marina Warner’s fiction has a slow, dreamy quality that is at once pleasurable and slightly sinister…This is a moving book, and a very bookish one.’

Lorna Sage, The Times Literary Supplement

‘Warner’s language and pace astonish and reward. Her characters, male and female, elderly and children, strike again and again the unexpected true note, whether playing, grieving, lusting, skinning fowl for dinner or complaining about politics.’

Marianne Wiggins, The Sunday Times

‘The Lost Father has all the pleasure of a literary crossword puzzle, combined with a brilliantly realised women’s world…It is Warner’s best novel so far.’

Lorraine Fletcher, The Guardian

An idiosyncratic and haunting novel: lush, slow-paced, sensual, metaphorical and, at the same time, anxiously worrying over the demands of kinship and the trail of history…This is a cultural historian’s novel and the scholarly curiosity that went into Marina Warner’s fine books on female myths and iconography makes for a devotedly careful recreation.’

Hermione Lee, The Observer

Other editions

First published by Chatto & Windus, 1988