Friday, 8 July 2016

The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle

Reviewer: Julia Sutton

What we thought: Here is a novel of stature, and a living portrait of a city. By means of fresh and arresting writing that engages all of the senses, it immerses the reader totally in another time and place. Beautiful Florence, ravaged by the second world war. Its ancient bridges, mined by the Wehrmacht and patrolled by Fascist militia, await their bombardment by The Allies. Jews are on the run, informers are rife, secret police and torturers lurk, and voluble Italians no longer finish their sentences, but live their daily lives vicariously exiled from themselves.

September 1943. The novel opens with Isabella (Italian), a painter at work in the intimacy of her studio. The air raid siren shrieks, and then the sky outside her window fills with the familiar drone of warplanes. In one of the planes -- V Victor, a Lancaster bomber -- sits English pilot Freddie Hartman. The bomb doors open above the neighbourhood of Florence where his home is, and where his wife still has her studio. Looking down, he can identify it, close by the English cemetery and Maestro’s atelier, where he and Isabella met as students in 1937. They have been separated since Italy declared war on Britain and France.

The extreme tension of this opening lays bare to the reader not only that they are in for a nail-biting ride, but the pervading atmosphere and underlying themes of the narrative. Intimacy and the many ways it is eroded by war. Separation and displacement. There is humour too, among the lads at the RAF base in Lincolnshire, from where Freddie and his crew set off on bomb runs, trusting in their luck. And some awe-inspiring descriptions of the night sky in these chapters put me right there in the cockpit.

Friend Oskar, a German jew and fellow student at Maestro’s atelier, turned to dance as a profession and moved to Paris with his French wife. At the 1942 round up, he escaped with his six-year-old daughter Esme, but not his wife. Oskar, fleeing south with Esme, touchingly prepares the child for life with him as a fugitive. But by the time they cross into Italy, deportations are leaving from Genoa and Florence. Marina, Isabella’s neighbour, was once engaged to Francesco, but his Jewish mother is also a fascist, and objected to the match.

These five fascinating characters populate the narrative and also structure it contrapuntally through their alternating points of view. To craft a novel from five distinct perspectives requires ambition and immense skill. And the result is a feat of architecture worthy of beautiful Florence and deserving our highest praise.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: In Love and War by Alex Preston; 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres.

Avoid if you don’t like: sustained suspense, scenes of torture.

Ideal accompaniments: Barolo and the Bach Cello sonatas.

Genre: Literary fiction. Historical fiction.

Available on Amazon

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