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Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of Florence (#BookReview)

June 22, 2018

Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of FlorenceThere are several reasons why I enjoyed Jan Wallace Dickinson’s historical novel The sweet hills of Florence, the first being Florence itself. I fell in love with Italy in Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s belltower, the Uffizi and all the other gorgeous places of art and architecture, not to mention the food, combined to capture my heart. It was the first foreign place to do so, and so remains today a special memory. Dickinson, who has apparently lived and worked in Italy for many years, clearly loves Florence too, because it is described in this book with such love.

However, that’s not the only reason for liking this book. Another is the history. I’ve read many, many novels set during the second world war, but not many set in Italy, let alone in Florence. When I visited Florence way back in 1980, it was the art that drew me. I knew very little of its war history, and I don’t recollect its being much on display. Dickinson, though, tells a fascinating story, one that captures both the horror and chaos, the brutality and bravery of war, and particularly of Italy’s war, well.

In some ways, the book could be described as historical romance, except that it doesn’t fit the bodice-ripper formula that I, of admittedly limited experience, see as the definition of this historical fiction sub-genre. What I’m saying in other words, is that in this book, although the love story underpins the plot, it doesn’t drive it in a suspenseful way. This enables Dickinson to explore the main relationship in a more subtle, dare I say, more nuanced way – and to focus on other themes as well.

The story, then, concerns two cousins, Enrico and Annabelle, who are in their late teens to early twenties, during the period of war – 1941 to 1945 – covered by the book. It’s clear from the beginning that Annabelle loves Enrico, and it doesn’t take long before we realise her love is reciprocated. The story follows their lives as partisans, with the Giustizia e Libertà movement within the Italian resistance movement. It’s a story of love, loyalty and camaraderie, but also of courage, deprivation, brutality, and chaos. Dickinson writes this convincingly, though I must say that all the names and places sometimes made my head spin! Here are a couple of examples of her descriptions, describing the German occupation of Florence:

There was no shortage of good citizens ready to settle a score by denouncing someone to Major Charity. The war lifted a rock and from under it, unimaginable creatures emerged, creatures who could not survive in the sunlight, who could thrive only in the dank shady corners of a civil war.

AND

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 popular, like the dance of a painted harlot before an audience of terminally ill patients in a madhouse.

Another aspect of the book which made it interesting reading is its structure. The novel is divided into 6 parts, and flips between war-time and the 2000s (up to 2008). The main war action is told chronologically through the middle parts of the novel, while at the beginning and end, we alternate somewhat between past and present. Again, this structure forces us to focus on the characters and their development, on the ideas and themes, rather than the plot.

There’s also paralleling of Annabelle’s love for Enrico, with Clara Petacci’s love for Benito Mussolini. I enjoyed this too. Dickinson spends some time describing Clara and Ben’s relationship. In her Acknowledgements she describes them as “fictionalised characters constructed from my interpretation of diaries, reports and histories.” Clara and Ben’s story serves a few purposes in the novel besides being a focus for Annabelle’s thinking about love. It humanises the two characters, for a start; it encourages us to consider the complexities of their relationship; and it makes the manner of their deaths all the more shocking.

We have no choice, do we?

In the end though, the ideas and themes were what I most enjoyed about the book, particularly those regarding the brutality of war and the lessons learnt or, to be more precise, not learnt. Dickinson makes very clear several times through the novel that there are no saints in war – and that Enrico and Annabelle themselves were capable not only of “justifiable” killing but of more brutal acts:

We cross a line. We decide killing os justified. We have no choice, do we? After that, nothing is taboo. Nothing is unthinkable. We are Freedom Fighters. We are heroes. We have rights on our side. Then wars end. We sleep and try to forget. But beneath it all we are still killers. We stand on the other side of the line. (from Annabelle’s diary)

Dickinson’s main theme, though, concerns the lessons of war. Annabelle’s reaction on the brutal death of Mussolini and Clara, and the subsequent way the bodies were treated, was

I wept for what we have become. Have we learned nothing?

Then, late in the novel, she makes a similar comment, quoting a partisan colleague who’d said:

“Italians … do not learn from the past. They live in the continuous present.”

There were times when I wondered about the reason for the epic nature of this novel, for its spanning so many decades and for, something I haven’t mentioned before, also spanning two countries, Italy and Australia to which Enrico went after the war. Dickinson, through Annabelle and her beloved niece Delia, consider the differences between Italy and Australia, seeing, for example, the former as kinder and the latter as more free. I’m not sure I agreed with all their conclusions, and I’m not sure what these discussions added to the novel, but …

… what did add to the novel were the references to the leering Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008 despite his increasingly fascist tendencies. Seen by a horrified Delia and Annabelle as “a leap back into the past”, it leaves us with, indeed, the question, “have we learned nothing?” The sweet hills of Florence, then, is an engrossing read if you like a strong story about “real” characters, that asks the important questions.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book – I promise I hadn’t read her review when I wrote my introduction, which is suspiciously similar!! I decided not to change it.

AWW Badge 2018Jan Wallace Dickinson
The sweet hills of Florence
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2018
401pp.
ISBN: 9781925272840

Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2018 8:07 am

    World War Two and novels set in that time never cease to fascinate me. The Florence setting makes it sound even more interesting.

    The tie in with Berlusconi is interesting and sounds appropriate. Much of the world would do well to remember the lessons of Facism.

    • June 22, 2018 8:43 am

      Thanks Brian… Yes I think the tie with Berlusconi focuses the reader’s mind well.

  2. June 22, 2018 8:12 am

    LOL I swear I didn’t read your review before I wrote mine too!
    You know, I wonder if we need a new term for this kind of historical fiction, to distinguish it from the bodice-ripping variety?

    • June 22, 2018 8:47 am

      Haha Lisa! I just laughed when I can back to read your review! It was so funny that we both mentioned loving Florence but not knowing the war history.

      Can you think of one?

      • June 22, 2018 11:12 am

        No, I can’t… brain dead at the moment!

        • June 22, 2018 1:00 pm

          I use ‘Literary/Historical fiction’ for want of a better term. You will smile to know that a reader hated the book because the title mislead him/her into thinking it would e a bodice-ripper. Too violent and hated the characters! I say constantly that there is nothing sweet about The Sweet Hills.

        • June 22, 2018 4:53 pm

          That’s how I’ve entered it at the AWW Challenge as Historical Fiction genre, and Literary as the sub-genre. Weird labelling but that’s how we’ve structured things there.

        • June 22, 2018 6:00 pm

          Oh dear, I can’t help laughing at that…
          But I don’t see how anyone could hate it, it’s a wonderful book!

        • June 22, 2018 8:00 pm

          Me neither Lisa. How different we readers are.

        • June 22, 2018 4:48 pm

          Understand completely!

  3. June 22, 2018 12:52 pm

    What a perceptive and detailed review. Florence yes – I first visited forty years ago, & camped in an olive grove at the side of Piazzale Michelangelo. I knew nothing of the war then either.
    I enjoyed the review and particularly knowing that the characters, themes and ideas were what came through most clearly. That is very gratifying to me. I find it fascinating to see which quote and which excerpts and which themes touch readers and reviewers so differently. Once a book is out there, it doesn’t belong to the writer anymore, but to each reader who will make of it what they want, and I love seeing what each reader focuses on.
    I’m also very glad to know that the Berlusconi parts resonate – the book (for me) is about the rise of Fascism, those who opposed it, those who did not and the consequences for the present. There has never been a better time to be talking about what the rhetoric of Fascism sounds like & Berlusconi is a perfect exemplar.
    I’m glad your into was like Lisa’s too – it tells me that the same things, the things I thought were important, are what strikes you both.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to do the review.
    Jan

  4. June 22, 2018 2:41 pm

    Sue, may I copy your link for this review to today’s Ragtag Daily Prompt, the theme of which is coincidentally “Italian”? I’m definitely putting this book on my to-read list. For the prompt, I wrote a poem (of a sort) about Italian migration to Australia. I wanted to include Bella Ciao, as the song to go with the poem, but my husband advised me against it lest people think I was a raging socialist. The era of the Italian Partisans is a fascinating one and I think your recommended book may illuminate this part of history a little more for me. Regards. Tracy.

  5. June 22, 2018 4:47 pm

    Thanks Jan. I’m always a bit anxious when I start pontificating about themes in books where the author is alive! I worry l’ll miss their part and either distress them or reveal myself to be stupid. I thought the Berlusconi inclusion made your point clear.

    • June 23, 2018 10:13 am

      Live authors can be a problem, I’ll admit! I thought it was great and I love that is has kicked off a cascade of interesting response and comments. It also lead to to other books and bloggers I didn’t know about. It’s such an interesting community.

      • June 23, 2018 11:49 am

        Haha, you sure are, Jan! And yes, the blogging community is great to be part of, particularly when discussions get going.

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