Colours of the North: Reġjun Tramuntana, Malta’s Northern Region by Natalino Fenech. Reġjun Tramuntana, 2020. 216 pages.
Fenech, deeply aware of the enormous changes these charming towns have experienced in his lifetime, aims to preserve disappearing aspects of Maltese culture for posterity. He succeeds prodigiously by introducing each chapter with fascinating detail about the region’s unique history, folklore, and commerce, and by asking the right questions of his interview subjects, steering clear of reducing them to sentimental caricatures. He skillfully balances their nostalgic introspection with their generally positive and realistic outlook on the island’s present and future. Each interviewee offers a particular perspective that complements Fenech’s well-researched narrative. Indeed, all of them serve as witnesses to the century past and present, bridging contemporary Maltese values with their descendants’ cultural mores.
Readers can enjoy the book in any of the three ways Fenech has weaved throughout the chapters. First, the narrative section unveils distinctive topographical, agricultural, and architectural features of the towns, going back centuries wherever historical context best explains their current situation. Next, the eyewitnesses to Maltese history establish a down-home flavor so singularly regional in content yet universal in spirit. Finally, the radiant 160-plus full-color photos scattered throughout the book, more than three-fourths taken by the author, constitute a standalone photo essay full of satisfying surprises. Those pictures can be enjoyed two ways: as an appetizing prelude to the rich storytelling contained around them, or as a review of the abundant information that was read, as this book will surely be picked up many times after a first reading.
Fenech brings all his powers to bear as an imaginative writer, journalist, historian, geologist, ethnographer, ornithologist, interviewer, documentarian, environmentalist, professor, and photographer extraordinaire. His first book, Fatal Flight: The Maltese Obsession with Killing Birds (1992) showed his commitment to striking a national balance between the Maltese pastime of bird hunting and preserving wildlife. His Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection, Volume 1 – Valletta and Floriana (2007) illustrated his appreciation of an artist’s profound contribution to Maltese photojournalism, and it earned Fenech his first Malta National Book Award. A Complete Guide to Birds of Malta (2010) is Fenech’s beautifully illustrated encyclopedic compendium of all birds that are permanent residents of the island or resting on their perennial journey to three continents. It won him his second Malta National Book Award and affirmed his reputation as the John Audubon of Malta. His range in Colours of the North exudes not only his passions but his insightful vantage points, making his latest work a veritable page-turner.
As a bonus, an introductory chapter by Ray Cachia Zammit and Jane Caruana covers the Victoria Lines, Malta’s seven-mile Great Wall built as fortifications from encroachers by the British when Malta was a crown colony.
Having visited Malta 9 times over 55 years, I have seen much change in the island. Fenech reminds us that some small Maltese wonders have not and others that soon will, leaving one with a sense of gratitude that he has documented them all. Even lifelong residents of Malta will find numerous pleasures in Colours of the North.