The Sweet Hills Of Florence…
About the Book:
1941. Florence, city of strife. It is Hitler’s state visit to Florence and the last of the good times for Mussolini. From now on, he and his lover Clara will cling more closely together, ever more dependent upon each other as their country spirals into civil war and their lives disintegrate.
Annabelle and Enrico, young cousins from an ancient Florentine family, work first with the clandestine resistance, then openly with the partisans. Facing life and death together in the mountains, they forge a passionate life-long bond.
How reliable is memory and can we ever expiate past sins? Are some ghosts better left alone?
I’ve read a few novels about Italy, set during WWII, and it never fails to stun me how devastated that country was. The burden of putting your life back together and living within the stain of so much misery would have been no small feat. As time progressed, history would have mingled with the present, ensuring that the passage of time didn’t necessarily ease the burden of memory. The Sweet Hills Of Florence pays homage to the partisans of Italy, narrowing its focus onto Florence in particular. It’s an ambitious novel, weighted with history, steeped in atmosphere, even including a fictionalised account of the last years of Mussolini, viewed from the perspective of his mistress, Clara Petacci.
‘This was the real Florence, the Florence of sobbing and wailing and tearing of hair, not the painted and decorated Florence put on show by the authorities to distract the populace.’
This novel is heavy reading, not just in its subject matter, but also in its breadth and scope. It was, for me, too long. The history is meticulously documented and woven into the narrative with precision, but the complications of Italy’s political history and the large cast make for a concentrated effort. The author’s passion for Florence, and indeed, for Florentine history, is well realised though, and the resulting sense of atmosphere was richly rendered. There is much food for thought throughout the novel, particularly relating to the protection of art in times of war.
‘Was art worth a human life? Well, she supposed it depended on whose life. But if there was nothing left afterwards, what were they all fighting for?’
There is a romance, or rather, a love story, underpinning the events of the novel, but it failed to draw me in. If I’m honest, it kind of repelled me.
‘It was clear to everyone that Annabelle and Enrico were in love. They would ‘come to heir senses’ was the general view. It was the war. The war turned everything topsy turvy. The war made people do things…’
Annabel and Enrico are first cousins, in what I gathered was an aristocratic family. The family itself seemed lofty and appeared to have placed themselves in a position of isolation on account of being anti-everything. I found this depiction quite interesting actually, and I could see how this had transpired as a result of an ideological clash with the politics of Mussolini, who we can’t forget, was in power for a great many years before WWII. But this lofty view had resulted in a particularly sheltered existence, more so for Annabel than Enrico, and consequently, she became rather fixated on her own cousin. Until Annabel entered the resistance, she was overtly dreamy with little grasp on the wider world around her, embarrassingly obsessed with the ‘love story’ between Mussolini and Clara. While my opinion of her rose immeasurably as she began to find herself through her work in the resistance, and then later as a partisan, I still felt her affair with Enrico was off balance. I simply couldn’t become invested in their love story because I fundamentally didn’t approve of it.
A good portion of this novel was given over to Clara and Mussolini, in a move to humanise them, is my guess, but Clara was such a shallow woman, and Mussolini was so whiny and irrational. I came to dread these sections. What happened to their corpses after their deaths can be evaluated in many ways, but I think allowances need to be made for the pain and loss that people endure, the atrocities and debasement that can be forced upon a person. I refuse to judge another when I truly have no concept on what it’s like to live within their skin. Stories about any war need to be handled with care, particularly those that occurred within the generations of living memory. ‘The wrong sector of the right side’ is a notion that brings me a lot of discomfort. I grew up digesting the history of WWII, my Belgian grandfather never failed to remind us daily how lucky we were. In adulthood, I became privy to the reasons why he had berated us for moaning over wet socks and lumpy porridge. Details about his life as a resistance fighter were imparted to me almost as a revered gift, the knowledge of which sits within me like a solid mass. One thing I appreciate about this novel is that it neither romanticised nor demonised the resistance. It just depicted it as it was. I still feel unsettled though, by this novel, and I can’t seem to put my finger on why.
‘Are we heroes? Are we murderers? When do we become what we are fighting against?’
Overall, The Sweet Hills Of Florence is a novel with great depth and regard for the history that inspired it. Jan Wallace Dickinson is an author who demonstrates a clear passion for her subject. Anyone with an interest in Italian history would do well to add this novel to their shelves.
Thanks is extended to the author for providing me with a copy of The Sweet Hills Of Florence for review.
About the Author:
Jan Wallace Dickinson has lived and worked in both Italy and Australia for more than twenty-five years. She has a wide range of commercial and academic experience at all levels, in both countries. Her particular interest is Italian literature and history, and she has worked as an editor, translator and bookseller.