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Tourists in Florence today might be forgiven for imagining that this glorious Renaissance city, overflowing with architectural and artistic masterpieces, must have been spared the destruction wrought elsewhere during the Second World War. They would be wrong. Indeed, some of the fiercest fighting in Europe occurred in Italy, as the Germans put up a determined resistance to Allied attack. Aiding that attack was a determined body of partisan fighters, young, brave, and committed to the overthrow of the Fascism that had ruled their country for so many decades. Contemporary tourists may come across a reminder of their struggle if they should come across a plaque dedicated to the memory of those who fought and fell.
What they certainly will not realize, however, is that many of these partisans were women; indeed, at least 35,000 women were armed and active in the movement. THE VILLA TRISTE imagines the lives of two such - sisters Isabella and Caterina Cammaccio - in Florence in 1943 and 44. The younger, Isabella, is a fearless university student, one who loves the mountain climbing and the outdoors. Caterina is a little older, far from fearless, a young woman who looks forward to nothing so much as being reunited with her fiancé and getting married in her lovely white dress. She has, however, trained as a nurse to have something to do while she waits. She also keeps a meticulous diary and it is this that is the source of what we learn about the pair and what they did.
Given the respect that the partisans are held in modern Italy, it is shocking that first one, then another, of their number should be found murdered and their mouths stuffed with salt. Who could be attacking these revered octogenarians? There aren't a lot of candidates, though the neo-Fascists are under suspicion, but because of the sensitivity of the cases, Alessandro Pallioti, a very senior policeman, comes out from behind his desk to lead the investigation.
Depending on one's point of view, he is either aided or hampered by a young American academic, Eleanor Sachs, who is obsessed with identifying her grandfather, whom she believes to have been a storied partisan called Il Spettro, the Ghost, because he could not be caught by the Nazis. She is devoted to her quest even if most authorities agree that Il Spettro never existed. But if he did, he could be still alive, could he not, and might he then be responsible for the murders for some reason of his own?
The novel alternates selections from Caterina's diary with a straightforward account of Pallioti's investigation, which leads him to meet with a variety of elderly survivors of the dark days of the war and with some of their descendants. The case unravels slowly, but inexorably leads to the solution of a variety of mysteries, including, finally, the identity of Eleanor Sachs's grandfather.
THE VILLA TRISTE lacks the verisimilitude that typifies the best of contemporary crime fiction set in the past. We get no real physical sense of Florence itself, either sixty years ago or now. The sceptical reader will be dubious that Caterina, in the midst of death and destruction, could possibly write so detailed and literary an account of her days, let alone fit it in a notebook small enough to be concealed in the hem of a jacket. Still what it may lack in period detail, it more than makes up for in the sharpness and attractiveness of its characters. The sisters are people whose company we seek and whose fate we fear for. That two so different characters could nevertheless both behave with astounding courage is made wholly believable and deeply moving. The modern characters are also sharply drawn and attractive. Most of all, Grindle has focussed her war novel on an area that seldom comes into sharp focus - the actions of women. Pallioti may be the lead investigator, but this book is all about the women, live and dead, who are at the centre of the narrative.
The story of the partisans is, as someone in the book remarks, the story of "shockingly ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things," and thus, despite the pain and death, it remains a hopeful story. More than that, it reminds us of what another survivor from those dreadful days also calls extraordinary:"even in this day and age..., in any day and age, that people always insist on believing their heroes are men."
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2011
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