As I’m not a fan of historical fiction I wasn’t quite sure how long I would last with this latest release by Martin Cruz Smith. And – although it wasn’t a riveting read – I found myself quite enchanted by the story of the Italian fisherman Cenzo, and Giulia… the girl he found in the lagoon.
The Girl from Venice
by Martin Cruz Smith
Published by Simon & Schuster UK
on November 3rd 2016
Source: Simon & Schuster
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.
Although they have little in common, this book reminded me of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin… thanks to the setting I suspect, and the affability of our lead character.
Innocenzo (Cenzo) Vianello is a fisherman. He’s far more philosophical and intelligent than he gives himself credit for however. Rather he’s content to be a fisherman.
That the girl regarded fishing as low or demeaning hardly bothered him. He thought fish were mysterious, more a race than a species, and an invitation to another world. p 40
He believes he finds a body when he stumbles across Giulia but soon learns she’s far more wily and resourceful than expected. It eventuates that she’s on the run and Cenzo seems fated to help her.
He doesn’t see himself as a hero however… and decides to try to find her one; one who can whisk her away to safety. To the approaching Americans.
The story gets complicated from there. We learn that Cenzo is still mourning the death of his wife and his younger brother, and there’s a rift with his older brother – a well-known actor and currently working in the Propaganda Ministry for the SS.
I’m reminded of the large gaps in my knowledge as I was unaware of Italy’s flip-flopping allegiances in WWII. If indeed that’s what they were.
Smith isn’t particularly glowing in his description and characterisation of Mussolini although I’m not sure if some poetic licence was adopted when talking about the final months and weeks of the second world war.
A battalion of the Wehrmacht was leaving Salo, marching down the promenade to the ringing of a glockenspiel that made their retreat sound like a celebration. Who were they? Cenzo wondered. Strip them of their helmets and guns, and they were salesclerks and students who had been issued uniforms and dispatched to oblivion. There were salutes and cheers outside German headquarters, but the locals greeted them with the impatience of hosts whose guests had overstayed their welcome. p 183
Smith also touches on the irrationality of war and the expectations of those involved.
“Can you believe this?” the colonel said. “I thought I would be protecting the landmarks of civilization, masterpieces by Titian and Tintoretto. Instead, here I am, preparing to detonate a mountainside.”
“None of us are doing what we thought we would,” Cenzo said.
“You’re right,” said Steiner. “If you questioned the men on either side of the front before the war and asked them what they thought they would be going, not a single man would say blow each other up.” p 165
But this story is about Cenzo – the unlikely hero – and his bravery and muted passion. Throughout the war he’s determined to remain uninvolved. He’s a fair man and questions the decisions and integrity of those in power; though recognises the futility in rising against them. He doesn’t trust easily but is loyal to those he cares for.
There’s also something bewitching about the prose and Smith has an efficient yet lyrical way with words…
Cenzo thought that if he could see the world with her eyes, it would be a place where your death was on a list. The girl came with ghosts. p 19
This latest release by Smith will most certainly appeal to fans of historical fiction and war buffs; not to mention lovers of beautiful writing.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith by Simon & Schuster on 1 November 2016.
I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.
NB. As my copy of this book was an advance copy, the quotes and page numbering may have changed before the final release.