Tag Archives: Mussolini’s Island

My top 5 reads of 2017

10 Jan

It feels like 2017 was a strange year of reading for me. Having set out at the start with the intention of reading more I ended up reading fewer books than I did in 2016. I gave up on more books this year too and I wonder whether this was as a result of an awareness of reading time being more precious. That said, there were still books aplenty to enjoy, and a clutch I got really excited about. There were a couple of real standout titles in 2017 that I knew would be in my top five the moment I’d read them but, as ever, whittling the favourites down to five is not easy. Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat almost made it (I still can’t see an octopus without remembering…), and Jess Richards’ wonderfully lyrical City of Circles whose opening chapter is like a breath you can’t release. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island was a pleasure, sensitive and melancholy, and opening up a chapter of history that is little known. And then there was The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon, which Mrs Van loved as much as I did. I defy anyone not to fall for Tilly!

 

But down to business: March, the promise of spring and the first of my top five, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. One of Mrs Van’s favourites too, you really can’t beat a book that can make you laugh out loud, and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will do it over and over. Add to that excellent characters and a storyline that will make you look, and then look again at life and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.

 

The next of my top five came to me in June. A book that had been on my radar for a while, though I knew little about it beyond the title and the lovely cover, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected because I didn’t know before reading that it was a memoir, and also that it was so uplifting, its lyrical beauty a welcome counterpoint to that febrile sense that necessitated the writing of the book in the first place. Little wonder it won the Wainwright Prize in 2016.

 

From the Orkney Islands in June to South Africa in July and Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose blew me away. It’s not a big book – just 150 pages – but its punch is mighty! It’s interesting for me to realise that I read this the month following The Outrun too as these books feel similar in some ways, visceral and honest, spare and lyrical. There has to be a sense of truth in any book for it to really work but some books bear more truth than others. The truth in Evening Primrose is almost too much to bear. A stunning piece of work.

 

The international flavour continues in September, and it’s Japan this time for Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. I can’t help but smile, remembering this book and the extraordinarily vivid rendering of little Yuki. It’s like going back to the adorable photos of the little ones in your own life. It’s that characterisation that really makes this book, connecting like a mainline straight to the heart so you feel everything that happens. This was another one that Mrs Van loved too, our favourites coinciding a lot more than in previous years.

 

Finally, November brought Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. I think I would’ve known this would be in my top five even if I’d read it back in January. A lush and pretty proof with its purple velvet and gold lettering, it’s a treat and no mistake. Hands down, this is up there as Mrs Van’s favourite of the year – I started reading this one to Mrs Van and didn’t get a chance to finish it first. We raced through it in a single weekend. It’s absolutely gripping, an assault on the senses that I’d urge you to get your hands on, and you’ve not got long to wait now!

 

As for 2018, well things are looking pretty good already. After all, you’ve got the absolute delight that is The Wicked Cometh on its way, and there are second books from Fran Cooper (a review of which will follow shortly) and Anthony Trevelyan, both of whom produced stunning debuts (Fran’s excellent These Dividing Walls and Anthony’s sublime The Weightless World, both of which deserve to be very widely read). So here’s wishing you all health and happiness in 2018, and as much joy, heartbreak, adventure, fantasy and truth as you can find between the covers of the books you read.

 

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Van has finished reading…Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day

1 Aug

mussolini

There is something very powerful about a quiet rendering of the suffering people can inflict on one another. For all the weight of stories told about and around the second world war, for all the bravery and degradation, the great suffering and little hard-won joys it’s the quiet ones that linger in the memory. Not just for its period and location I’m reminded of Virginia Baily’s superb Early One Morning, and Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island is one of the quiet ones.

1939. Catania’s streets are quiet. Even before the knock at the door, he knows. For Francesco there is no escape as the police run him down, the disgust on their voices clear as he is taken. ‘Arrusu’, they call him, the word all sneer and spittle. But Francesco is not the only one. All over the city young homosexuals are being rounded up. Someone has betrayed them, but who? Once interned together on San Domino, the hunt begins for the mole while the authorities seek the perpetrator of another crime. While Francesco feels he has lost everything there is more at stake than he can imagine.

Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island is a sensitive, thought-provoking and wholly unsentimental story of love, loss and betrayal.

 

I love the characterisation in this book. The author’s restraint is impeccable and it’s this, I think that allows so many individuals to stand alone in what is quite a crowded cast. Impressions build over time to form a picture and this gives the imagination room to fill in around the descriptions. Nothing feels out of place, no action introduced simply to aid the plot or build a scene and, while it may not be a complete surprise come the end of the book for me it’s all the more satisfying that the journey is such a complete one. It’s this, too that allows the reader to feel not just for Francesco and his companions but for Elena too and, yes, even Pirelli at times. There’s an honesty in the rendering of these people that is truly touching.

Sarah Day sets the scene on San Domino exquisitely. She uses all her characters’ senses to paint a vivid landscape, and beyond that too the flavour of what it’s like for the island’s inhabitants to live there. Islanders and prisoners alike are hemmed by a fatalistic mien, and the shadow of fascism looms over everyone, fuelling their paranoia. War rages in Europe. Everybody counts the days until Italy will join the fray, though the ghost of defeat at Caporetto in the First World War haunts both those who were there and those who were not. Claustrophobia stalks Day’s prose.

 

It’s easy sometimes to look at stories like this with a knowing eye – to feel their power, yes, to empathise with those who suffered, but from a safe distance and through the filter of fiction. But these were real people. Okay, yes, as Sarah Day says in her author’s note, all but two of the characters are invented, but ‘confino’ is not. The idea that homosexuality could be contracted like a disease really was there. People were rounded up, beaten, interned and much worse because of their sexuality. And before we get all holier than thou about it let’s remember that homosexuality was a criminal offence in this country too, that it would be another 28 years before it was even partially decriminalised here.

But look at Day’s description of Francesco’s feelings, his fears and desires. One of the real joys of this book is his coming to terms with what he feels and how right it is, how it couldn’t be anything else, anyone else.

How is that any different to you or me?

 

Mussolini’s Island was published by Tinder Press on 23rd February 2017 ISBN:9781472238191

You can find Sarah Day on Twitter @geowriter or at her website, sarah-day.com

 

My thanks to Millie Seaward at Headline for allowing me to review this book