Lou Drofenik is not a new name in the Maltese literary scene. A Maltese-Australian author based in Melbourne, Drofenik, who writes in English, started by self-publishing her first novel Birds of Passage in 2005 and so far has written eight novels.
The Confectioner’s Daughter is Drofenik’s first novel to be published by Horizons, a relatively new and upcoming Maltese publisher. Horizons’ foresight served it well. The Confectioner’s Daughter won the National Book Prize for novels published in 2016. This is the first time a novel written in English has won the Prize since the National Book Council introduced the bilingual rule putting both English and Maltese, as State official languages, on an equivalent platform.
Winning a prize in the novels category against competition by renowned authors such as Immanuel Mifsud makes the recognition to Drofenik even more prestigious and rightly so. Lou Drofenik had already received two National Book Prizes for her novels, one in 2008 with In Search of Carmen Caruana and another one in 2011 with Cast The Long Shadow. She was twice awarded the Australian North Central Literary Award for Cloves and Bitter Almonds and Beloved Convict.
Although Drofenik’s position as the best English-writing Maltese novelist was practically undisputed given the lack of Maltese literature in English, the fact that she has proved her mastery alongside other renowned Maltese authors, irrespective of the language used, means that her place in the Maltese literary canon is assured. Here we are speaking of undoubtedly one of the most significant contemporary Maltese writers.
The novel is lucid, gripping, dynamic and reads like a film by Giuseppe Tornatore. It is set in early 20th century Malta, where the patriarchal establishment rules over women with overwhelming force, the voice of women is often muffled and women tend to keep to themselves.
In a small village environment which can easily turn hostile and violent towards independent women who make choices outside of the norm, the rags-to-riches success of a poor baker turned confectioner who inherits a small bakery from her deceased father is welcomed by her fellow villagers with both envy and respect. Her younger Sicilian husband, whom she married after bribing a priest to marry them off quickly after having conceived his child, is murdered leaving Ġuditta, the confectioner, alone to run her business and bring up her child.
The good side of Malta comes to light when friends and even unknown strangers empathise with her and come forward to help her. As the daughter of the strong-willed Ġuditta grows in the stifling patriarchal environment of the village, a sense of freedom and independence grows with her. Licia, the confectioner’s daughter, leaves the island for greener pastures only to find new challenges of a different kind, yet of a similar nature.
The story shows Malta in its many different aspects. The ugly, superstitious, overtly zealous and religious, male-centred society, while on the other hand there is also love, independence, solidarity and social justice. Women are at the centre of the story and throughout the novel face great challenges, making the theme of women’s emancipation strongly present in both the background and foreground of the story.
As the story spans through generations we see the characters evolve and grow along with their changing historical environment providing a socio-historical background to Maltese society from the eyes of female characters. Drofenik, a Maltese emigrant who went to Australia in the 1960s, during the decade in which tens of thousands of Maltese left the islands in search for a better life, knows very well the great challenges faced by Maltese women back then.
In her unpublished paper A Moment of Rebellion, Drofenik writes that her decision to immigrate to Australia was driven by her desire to own her life; to recreate herself while seeking liberation from the clutches of old prescribed customs which her home society had long imposed on her. Similarly, Licia, who leaves Malta for good, recreates her life from scratch – a daunting and challenging task in comparison to staying in Malta in the comfort and security of her mother’s home.
The characters of Licia and Ġuditta are a rare class of female characters in Maltese literature: strong-willed, independent and defiant. To many young women today who may still experience the stifling patriarchal nature of Maltese society, Licia and Ġuditta may be inspirational characters. Female heroes are rare in the Maltese literary scene, but they are also so in literature all over the world.
Lou Drofenik’s National Book Prize for The Confectioner’s Daughter as the best Maltese novel in 2016 has coincided with the global debate on women’s rights, sparked by the outcry over sexual abuse and misconduct on actresses in Hollywood by powerful men in the film industry. Drofenik may be writing about stories which are set in the past, but she may also be writing about many traits which are still with us to their very day. With The Confectioner’s Daughter, Drofenik may have written not only a historical novel, but a political manifesto for the liberation of women.