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by Joanna Hines
Pocket Books, August 2005
352 pages
ISBN: 0743468724

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

British novelist Joanna Hines is eminently qualified to write about the relief effort launched in Florence subsequent to the awful flood of 1966: she was one of the titular Angels of the Flood and experienced first-hand what the youthful Angels got up to as well as what the residents suffered. Her authentic background required minimal tweaking and superimposition of a story to provide a breathtaking, albeit extremely dark, narrative about a wracked family bent on protecting its very survival.

Kate Holland is a respected art conservator. In the present day, she is lecturing on the restoration of old paintings to an audience amongst whom there is a long-lost friend, David Clay.

Kate is describing the significance of a painting on which she has been working, one which had been sent to her anonymously. She stops talking in mid-sentence when she suddenly realises the message conveyed personally to her by the painting and almost loses her audience before she is able to resume her absorbing lecture.

Kate and David had been teenagers at the time of the Florence floods and their lives had been irrevocably marked by the work they did in aiding the restoration of the art treasures damaged by the waters. Kate had abandoned the future mapped out for her by her parents: secretarial work then marriage, while David's lapsing into the family business was marred by thoughts of what might have been. Both were horrified and traumatised by the horrific death of Francesca Bertoni, the enigmatic girl whom they had saved from suicide in the long ago days of their youth.

The secret of the painting causes Kate to travel once more to Florence in order to locate Simona, the younger sister of dead Francesca. David, in the meantime, is visiting his daughter in Rome but planning to meet Kate in Florence. Kate discovers that Simona has seized on a chance remark made by Kate many years previously and transformed the Villa Beatrice into an auditorium for the benefit of students.

Suddenly the past springs to life in Kate's mind when she encounters a doctor, friend to the Bertonis, who had a profound influence on her in the past as well as Francesca's mother, a woman who hates Kate and blames her for the death of Francesca. Then there is the malevolent Dino, the family retainer who would do anything for Signora Annette Bertoni, up to and including murder.

The story is primarily told from the perspective of Kate Holland although at times the viewpoints of many of the other players are displayed. The dual time frames are meshed, sometimes confusingly, as the adventure plays out. Even the malevolence of matriarch, Annette, is made, for a time, to seem to have a rational explanation and justification. The motivation of old man, Zio Toni, even more wicked than Annette, is never explained.

Action , much of it violent and sadistic, proliferates in the tale. Greed, avarice and treachery are depicted alongside art and corrupted innocence. The unexpected conclusion to the rite of passage tale provides some explanation but no excuse for the evil that precedes it but it gives a fitting if a little frustrating, finish to the whole.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, September 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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