Italy, 1932 — Mussolini’s Italy is growing from strength to strength, but at what cost?
One bright autumn morning, architect Isabella Berotti sits at a cafe in the vibrant centre of Bellina, when a woman she’s never met asks her to watch her ten-year-old daughter, just for a moment. Reluctantly, Isabella agrees — and then watches in horror as the woman climbs to the top of the town’s clock tower and steps over the edge.
This tragic encounter draws vivid memories to the surface, forcing Isabella to probe deeper into the secrets of her own past as she tries to protect the young girl from the authorities. Together with charismatic photographer Roberto Falco, Isabella is about to discover that secrets run deeper, and are more dangerous, than either of them could have possibly imagined . . .
Is there such a thing as the perfect book for a wet Bank Holiday afternoon, do you think? I do – and with this book, I certainly found it. The Italian Wife by Kate Furnivall is published in paperback on 7th May by Sphere – the kindle version has been out since November – and I’d recommend it most strongly, wet Bank Holiday or not.
I really enjoyed Kate Furnivall’s Russian Concubine series, but was a tad disappointed by The White Pearl and haven’t read her books since – but this was a wonderful book with which to rediscover her writing. I don’t very often quote from books I’ve read, but just try this:
I didn’t know I was going to die that warm October day in Milan. If I’d known, I’d have done things differently. Of course I would. I I’d known, I wouldn’t have died. But I was nineteen years old and believed I was immortal…
That’s how the book opens – doesn’t it make you want to read on? And so I did…
I always thoroughly enjoy works of fiction set against an authentic historical background: I’d never before heard about Mussolini’s reclaiming of the Pontine Marshes to be the bread-basket of Rome, and found it thoroughly fascinating. I was also only peripherally aware of Mussolini’s pre-WW2 Fascist regime, the cruelty of his Blackshirts and the oppression of the Italian people.
Isabella works as part of a team of architects designing and overseeing the construction of the new town of Bellina, built to a grand scale to glorify the Fascist regime on the drained marshes, surrounded by state owned farms worked by families who are brought into the area. Bellina itself is fictional, and wasn’t one of the five towns constructed – but it’s really vividly described with its grandiose architecture, rigidly designed living accommodation and absence of mature trees and greenery because they’ve all just been planted.
Isabella is a widow, originally from Milan, her Blackshirt husband shot and killed ten years earlier: Isabella was left disabled by the same assailant, who has never been identified or apprehended, and only survived with the care of her doctor father. She has learned not to trust anyone, immersing herself in her work, achieving success as the only female architect in the city. The tower which Isabella designed for the centre becomes the focus for the story when a woman she has never met speaks to Isabella of her dead husband, leaves her young daughter with Isabella and throws herself to her death. So begins a quite wonderful read.
If I have any niggles at all, maybe some of the historical background could have been put across more lightly – once or twice, no more, there’s a burst of history that sits less than comfortably with the story. Some reviewers have said they found the central love story a little Mills and Boon – not me though, I thought it was thoroughly perfect, and it moved me deeply.
This book really has a bit of everything – it’s a very moving love story, a portrait of courage and betrayal, a mystery to be solved, a thriller that frequently has you on the edge of your seat, and a fascinating introduction to a setting and period of history about which I knew very little. And in addition, it’s a beautiful story of how a very damaged woman learns to trust and love again. Do try it – I absolutely loved it.
My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading copy.
Kate Furnivall was raised in Penarth, a small seaside town in Wales. Kate went to London University where she studied English and from there she went into publishing, writing material for a series of books on the canals of Britain. Then into advertising where she met her future husband, Norman. She travelled widely, giving her an insight into how different cultures function. By now Kate had two sons and so moved out of London to a 300-year old thatched cottage in the countryside where Norman became a full-time crime writer. He won the John Creasey Award in 1987, writing as Neville Steed. Kate and Norman now live by the sea in the beautiful county of Devon, only 5 minutes from the home of Agatha Christie. Kate has an excellent website where you can read more about the author and her books, a Facebook author page and can be followed on Twitter.