I’m always drawn to books from the period of and after the Second World War from an area convulsed by the conflict of which little has been written, fiction or non-fiction. This sweeping story, centered on the family and closest friends of Contessa and Ettore Saforo, takes us to one such forgotten corner of the war, the city of Fiume, one of the Italian possessions along the Dalmatian coast of present-day Croatia. Occupied by Germans from 1943, much of the Italian population was forced to flee when the city taken by Tito’s partisan army at the end of the war. Split apart and shuffled from a Yugoslav prison to refugee camps in Italy and Germany, the Saforo family and their extended community of friends are reunited in Trieste, where they finally decide that their future might be secured by immigration, Australia being the only country willing to admit them all.
The author shows considerable skill incorporating a much-needed history lesson on this obscure corner of the war, weaving in her research both in secondary sources and first-hand accounts from her father and others who experienced the purge of the Italian populations from this coastal area after the war. Her facility with laying out and sticking to a complex story with several interweaving plot lines is both admirable and enviable. The reader is carried along with her extensive cast of characters, whipsawed from the wild anxiety of their breakneck flight ahead of an advancing army to cringing fear in a black dungeon to the stultifying sameness of endless days waiting in refugee camps for a future that may never come. She also has a knack for drawing quite believable, three-dimensional child characters, which is fortunate since her cast includes nearly a dozen by the last third of the novel.
Overall, the book showed great skill with lucid writing and consistent voice, the author’s years as a journalist showing through from beginning to end. Although meticulously proofread, the book would have gained from a thorough line edit. There were many examples of redundant words or phrases and repetition of information or description, sometimes within the same paragraph. This being a first novel, I’m confident this will work itself out as the author gains confidence in trusting her readers a bit more – but I strongly suggest she finds herself a good technical editor for her future writing.
Given the way in which the book ends—no spoilers here—it seems likely the author has a series in mind. This may be why she sometimes lays on the foreshadowing a little heavily, particularly with the children. Regardless of these few peripheral weaknesses, this is a ripping good story that will take you to a familiar time but into a place very few people know much about. It’s well worth a read.
© Jeffrey K. Walker
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