Review – Secrets of the Tower by Debbie Rix

By | March 23, 2015

Two women, centuries apart, bound together by the secrets of one of the most iconic buildings ever created. 

Pisa, 1999 Sam Campbell sits by her husband’s hospital bed. Far from home and her children, she must care for Michael who is recovering from a stroke. A man she loves deeply. A man who has been unfaithful to her. Alone and in need of distraction, Sam decides to pick up Michael’s research into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Immersing herself in the ancient city, she begins to piece together the mystery behind the creation of the Tower, and discovers the woman that history forgot… 

Pisa, 1171 Berta di Bernardo, the wife of a rich merchant, sits in her chamber, dressing for a dinner party. A gathering that will change the course of her life and that of a young master mason, Gerardo, forever. A strong, intelligent woman, Berta’s passion for architecture draws her closer to Gerardo. As she embarks on a love affair, her maid Aurelia also becomes spellbound by the same man. Yet for Berta, her heart’s desire is to see the Tower built, and her determination knows no bounds…

I’ll readily admit that I’m not the most passionate reader of historical fiction, particularly when that history is 12th century. But I visited Pisa some years ago and was intrigued by the premise of this book, and always enjoy a dual time narrative – and I’m excited by the output of this exciting publisher, Bookouture, who currently seem to have a touch of gold with the books they’re choosing to publish. Secrets of the Tower by Debbie Rix was published on 20th March in paperback and for kindle – and I must say that I absolutely loved it.

A strong woman is a strong woman whatever the historical setting, and the author has created some wonderful ones within the pages of this lovely book. Throughout the historical story, Berta is thoroughly mesmerising – I really couldn’t take my eyes off her as she tangled with a man’s world to achieve her dream. She’s a wonderfully complex character – passionate and driven by love, but also cool and calculating in achieving what she wants. Aurelia I warmed to rather less – less sophisticated, she was sometimes too much of the petulant child to like, although I did warm to her considerably as the book progressed, and felt for her over her love for Gerardo. I also liked very much Aurelia’s mother Violetta, a wonderfully caring character, with her apothecary skills central to the twists and turns of the story.

The modern story is every bit as good as the historical, and I really liked Sam – and enjoyed her growing realisation that she had buried herself as an individual, both talented and capable. Her husband Michael seemed a weakling unworthy of her – I’d have skipped away into the sunset with Dario like a flash, but I guess we wouldn’t then have had much of a book.  

The book is beautifully written in a highly readable way, and the Italian setting is perfectly drawn in both modern and historical settings, with sufficient detail to bring Pisa vividly to life, clearly by someone who loves it and knows it well. The dialogue flows quite perfectly – the historical exchanges are well done, with nothing jarring in a 12th century setting. The extensive research behind this book is clear, but used well – enough detail used to breathe life into the story and create the setting, never a turn-off. And above everything, this is a wonderful story – the author’s note and chronology make it clear what is fact and what is fiction, but I don’t think I’ll ever see pictures of Pisa again without thinking of Berta and the passions that drove her.

The press release for this book recommends it to anyone who enjoys Victoria Hislop, Kate Furnivall and Tracy Chevalier. Tracy Chevalier’s a little slow for my tastes, this book has a much brisker pace, and I’d substitute Marina Fiorato instead (if you’ve never tried her books, and Secrets of the Tower leaves you wanting more, I can recommend The Madonna of the Almonds or The Glassblower of Murano). 

Do try this one – I really didn’t think it would be entirely my cup of tea, but I was surprised and thrilled at how thoroughly I enjoyed it. It was really quite a wrench returning to present day Yorkshire when I clicked the final page. And I must mention that at the time of writing, the kindle version of this book is only 99p – do check before clicking. 

My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.

Debbie Rix began her career at the BBC where she was a presenter on BBC’s Breakfast Time before moving to present a variety of factual programmes. She is now a Communications Consultant, specialising in the charitable sector.

Secrets of the Tower is inspired by Debbie’s own story: her husband, a television producer, had a stroke whilst making a film for Channel 4 about the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the 1990s. The novel also reflects her love of architecture – an interest which is hard-wired into her DNA as both her parents were architects. Many of the historical characters featured are based on real people.

Debbie is in her early 50s and has two teenage children.