There 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.
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.
Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers.