Reviewer Karen Dahood : Karen lives in Tucson, AZ. After 35 years as a writer for businesses and nonprofits, she has turned to writing mysteries,the subtext of which addresses ageism, unpreparedness for aging, and America's wealth of experience and wisdom. Learn more about eldersleuth Sophie George at the Website Moxie Cosmos; Making Sense of Life Through Writing.
Author: Virginia Baily
Publisher: Little Brown
So totally engrossed in this novel, I had to remind myself toward the end to take some notes. It is profound and yet charming, not an easy combination for a writer to achieve. The depth lay in the theme of loss – a boy loses his mother, his guardian loses him, while, years later, a girl loses a sense of who she is. There are many deaths. All around and through these heart-rending family tragedies are wartime deprivations and terrors following the 1943 invasion of Rome and its countryside by the Germans. The reader is guided from one mysterious memory to another, accounting for happenings over thirty years, and taken from Italy to Wales and back again. It is all very grim and real.
Yet there is charm where a persistent sense of place recalls indelible layers of beauty in a landscape that otherwise appears so cruelly torn and shredded by its newest brutal conquerors. Charm also resides in the personalities who recognize when they can still experience special and irreplaceable moments, like wisps of dreams, piercing through the heavy, gray blanket of fear.
Virginia Bailey, an editor-turned-novelist, is more than a gifted storyteller; she writes passionately about the scenes and the people she has created. War ravages the city and people react, while yet we are glimpsing a pre-technological Italy, which some of us may remember from the 1950s, troubled and affected by the modern world, but still agrarian and relatively romantic. The central character is Chiara, an unmarried Italian woman who impulsively responds to a Jewish mother’s desperate signal from the back of a truck destined for a concentration camp. Living between the family farm and a Rome apartment, between past and present, she is a self-doubting heroine who suffers and survives her own decisions, hanging onto her unique view of life. Her friend Simone, overcoming her reputation as the flashy harlot who interfered with Chiara’s parents’ life (and thus hers), is steadfastly wise, if unconventional. Maria, the schoolgirl who arrives on Chiara’s doorstep to find her real father, is someone you want to take under your wing even knowing she is unmanageable. The boy Chiara rescued and who has left her heartbroken is forgivable. And that’s the problem.
Baily injects a subtle sense of humor that varies tellingly among these women. It lends itself to unexpected amusement and instant understanding. Here are examples:
MARIA: “… there was no excuse for celery. At best, it was pointless, a quasi non-vegetable, a texture rather than a taste. Her mother usually served it unadorned in a glass tumbler, trying, perhaps, to pass it off as a table decoration.”
CHIARA: “Let’s have a row, she thinks. Let’s splatter the room with the mess of all these unsaid things.”
SIMONE: “…men are like spices. They need to be crushed to get the full flavor.”
MARIA: “It was a comfort to think you could just duck into a church and express your feelings by making ghastly noises or contorting your body, and nobody would interfere.”
CHIARA: “Rage…it came, like a gargoyle within her, it felt bigger than she was, pushing at her seams and bursting through her pores. It spoke through her mouth.”
SIMONE: “’I’m not saying half love him,…Love him with all your heart. What other way is there to love? And let’s face it, the poor little bugger needs it.’”
I’ve read several excellent novels about war this summer, but this one is different, more feminine, more intimate, and more universally, enduringly, believable.