Mary Doria Russell is a favorite author of mine, but I hadn’t read this one until now. It’s a braided narrative about a cross-section of people invested in the Jewish refugee population in Northern Italy during WWII. Russell follows families who fled France as well as native Italians and a few Germans. With a few brief scenes she deftly brings this vast array of characters to life, and makes you care (including an introduction to Hitler himself that makes him chillingly sympathetic).
By using so many different point of view characters and sliding carefully among them, she heightens tension between the narratives, using what we know that some characters don’t to make the reader worry. Sometimes, we can follow a particular thread, a child who is separated from family, for instance, through the book while the family members never know what happened, making the title especially apropos.
The most engaging, and I would say central, character is an Italian Jew named Renzo Leoni, a disillusioned and damaged veteran of the war in Africa. It’s a constant delight to travel on his various adventures, with Renzo’s mad ingenuity escalating along with the ever-increasing risks he faces. (keep an eye on his aging mother as well!) In spite of the subject matter, I often laughed aloud when I came to a striking passage or moment of delicious irony–another sign of Russell’s genius, that she can focus on the gleaming hope of the human heart against a backdrop of terror, torture and misery.
I also had a bit of insider info that added to my interest in the book. I heard that Russell had gotten partway into the writing, establishing this variety of characters, then handed a list and a coin to her son and had him flip a coin for every name to determine who would die. She wanted the pattern of deaths to feel as random as it had seemed during her research. So I knew that her plotting was not necessarily tied to the narrative expectations of a traditional Western story arc–there would be moments when “once upon a time” would not equal “happily ever after” or even “poetically tragic”.
I did feel that a few moments in the book (which I won’t reveal as they are spoilers) were not handled with Russell’s usual strength. Perhaps this was a choice on her part to maintain that sense of randomness and non-traditional climax that she decided to de-emphasize a few key scenes that, to me, warranted a little more weight. If that was a choice, I found it a frustrating one as a reader–after spending so long with these characters, I protested the short shrift some are given toward the end.
But all-in-all, this work carried through with exceptional skill, a dedication to character development and transformation that I can only dream of emulating.