Review – The Good Italian by Stephen Burke

By | September 13, 2014

By far the majority of my reading is done on the Kindle these days.  Choosing which book to read next (from a growing pile of actual books…) I’d actually forgotten the power of a good cover – I knew I’d like this book before I even thought about opening it.  The other thing that attracted me was the unusual setting – could you point to Eritrea on a map (no, me neither)? Let reading my reviews become a learning experience (with thanks to Wikipedia!).  It’s actually in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan to the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast. In 1936, Eritrea became a province of Italian East Africa (along with Ethiopia), and by 1941, Eritrea had about 760,000 inhabitants, including 70,000 Italians. 

Geography lesson over, let me tell you about this lovely book.  It’s 1935, and Enzo is the harbourmaster at Massawa, Eritrea’s main port.  He doesn’t have such a bad life really – he can generally get his work done in a couple of hours a day, have a few drinks on his way home, where he then listens to his Caruso collection.  To let his hair down a little, he meets up with his friend Salvatore – colonel of the local garrison – who suggests he advertises for a housekeeper to make his life complete.  The local judge has a housekeeper, Salvatore has one too – it’s the accepted cover for relations with local women.  Enzo being Enzo (I so loved him…) things don’t go entirely smoothly – he ends up with Aatifa, and to start with she is a bit more than he can handle.  But in time – and it’s quite beautifully done – they fall in love. 
Then Mussolini decides that Eritria will be the jumping off point for the invasion of Ethiopia, and Enzo’s harbour begins to get busy.  First there are troops – then there is more deadly cargo. Worst of all for Enzo, the Italians pass a law banning relationships with Eritrean women. And poor larger-than-life Salvatore heads for the war in Ethiopia, his hedonistic life at an end.

Stephen Burke is a film maker, and it’s evident on every page that he originally intended this story for the big screen.  With obvious comparisons with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it would have made a wonderful film – but it also makes a pretty good book.  It’s a quite beautiful love story, an equally excellent story of the ugliness and horror of war, with some vividly drawn characters who you grow to really love and care for.  The writing is beautiful – many lovely touches of humour, other moments of heart-breaking sadness.  You’ll love Enzo and grow to love Aatifa – and the hard drinking, hard partying Salvatore is quite magnificent.  If this lovely book has slipped past your radar, do try it – I thought it was quite wonderful.

The Good Italian by Stephen Burke was published by Hodder and Stoughton in May 2014, and is available in hardback and for Kindle.  The paperback will be released in January 2015.

Born and raised in Dublin, Stephen Burke studied film at the Dublin Institute of Technology. His first feature film was Happy Ever Afters , starring Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins.  His directing work for television includes the TV film Anner House, based on a story by Maeve Binchy; and the award winning state of the nation series No Tears, which won Best Drama Series at the MonteCarlo TV festival.  He began his writing and directing career making multi-award winning short films about the conflict in Northern Ireland – After ’68 and 81.  A father of three children, he lives and works between Ireland and Italy.

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