Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2018

The Sweet Hills of Florence, by Jan Wallace Dickinson #BookReview

Florence is one of the great tourist destinations of the world – a world heritage site of priceless Renaissance art and architecture.  (You only need to look at its Wikipedia page if you need any convincing).  My memories of the city are full of galleries and cathedrals  – and although I thought of Mussolini when we saw his famous balcony at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, he didn’t cross my mind for a moment in sunny Florence.  So the dark history of civil war in Florence during the German Occupation in Jan Wallace Dickinson’s debut novel The Sweet Hills of Tuscany was a revelation to me.

The novel introduces Mussolini in 1941 hosting Hitler’s state visit to Florence, bragging afterwards of his godlike status to his lover Clara.  At the same time, the aristocratic Albizzi family reacts with dismay. Annabelle, who’s only a dreamy teenager who would rather read books in her father’s library, doesn’t really understand much of what’s going on, but she’s very interested in her cousin Enrico’s reaction because she loves him better than anyone else in the world.

While the parents watch events with disapproval but fail to act, Italy lurches inevitably towards chaos.  There are clandestine efforts to help the Jews caught up in Hitler’s Final Solution, and art works are spirited away into country villas to prevent the Germans looting them, but the city is divided between supporters of the regime and its ineffectual detractors.  But as the tide turns against the Axis in the war, Mussolini’s grip on power weakens and eventually he is deposed, only to be rescued by the Nazis and reinstalled as a puppet leader in the north of the country.  With the 1943 Allied Landing making its way up the ‘boot’, Enrico joins the partisans.  And partly because she loves him, but also because she is fired with passion for the cause, so does Annabelle.  At first she is a staffeto, a courier passing messages within the city, but eventually she takes up arms with Enrico in the mountains.

Dickinson recreates a gripping picture of the love story that takes place amid these events.  The partisans were in constant peril because  the peasants in the mountains were under threat of horrific Nazi reprisals if they gave the partisans any food or shelter.  They were often cold, hungry and exhausted.  They had no medical supplies or first aid posts if they were wounded.  Rival groups didn’t trust each other, and were likely to shoot each other on sight if a plausible identity was lacking.  While the resistance included disbanded soldiers and escaped prisoners, the anti-fascist groups included the Committee of National Liberation i.e. the Communists; the Garibaldi Brigades; and the Actionists and these politicised groups were resistant to merging or submitting to any kind of centralised control.  (Which no doubt exasperated the Allies who were trying to harness these groups into a coherent armed rebellion).

By juxtaposing the modern story of Annabelle’s grand-niece Delia with the historical narrative, Dickinson also interrogates the ethics of this type of warfare.  As in France, the Germans retaliated against resistance activities with ferocious reprisals against civilians.  As Annabelle writes in her diary:

We cross a line.  We decide killing is justified. We have no choice, do we?  After that, nothing is taboo.  We are Freedom Fighters.  We are heroes.  We have right on our side.  Then wars end.  We sleep and try to forget.  But beneath it all we are still killers. We stand on the other side of that line.  (p.388)

To confront this issue more squarely, Dickinson also reinvents the last months of the relationship between Mussolini and his mistress Clara before they were summarily executed by partisans, their bodies dumped in the piazza in Milan and then hung upside down from the roof of a petrol station.  The author humanises Mussolini as a querulous hypochondriac who is bewildered by the ingratitude of those who’d formerly supported him, while Clara, a somewhat shallow woman, is depicted as politically disinterested but deeply in love with her Benito.  The manner of their deaths at the hands of the partisans put me in mind of the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden, which was in marked contrast to the treatment of Saddam Hussein (even if that verdict was as predictable as any Soviet show trial).

The closing weeks and months of the war are vividly recreated.  The Germans evacuate Florence around the Arno so that they can blow up its historic bridges to prevent the Allied advance.  They conduct public executions of freedom fighters and dissenters and there is no halt to the deportations of the Jews to their deaths.  The city descends into civil war because there are still fascists everywhere with old scores to settle and nothing to lose, and the narrow streets and lanes are not safe from snipers at any time.  As Enrico goes north towards the liberation of Milan and other cities in the wake of the German retreat, Annabelle stays in Florence where she witnesses the death of a longstanding comrade because the Germans have mined the streets.

Reconstruction of the city and society begins, but the question remains unanswered at the end of the book: who should be brought to account for atrocities committed in war, and should there be some kind of expiation for sins committed by both sides, not just the vanquished?  Annabelle has a hoard of diaries which Delia is keen to read.  As in the case of memories of the Spanish Civil War which have been suppressed both by the Franco dictatorship but afterwards by common consent, should the ghosts of the civil war in Florence still be laid to rest?

Author: Jan Wallace Dickinson
Title: The Sweet Hills of Florence
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018
ISBN: 9781925272840
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond or direct from Hybrid.


Responses

  1. Thanks, Lisa. Just a note about the author’s name – you spell it correctly in the title but use ‘e’ instead of ‘i’ in the body. Can you change that?

    Regards Anna

    Anna Rosner Blay Managing Editor HYBRID PUBLISHERS PO Box 52 Ormond VIC 3204 Australia

    Tel: (03) 9504 3462 See our website at: https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au https://www.facebook.com/HybridPublishers/

    >

    • Oops, sorry about that, have fixed it.

  2. I have just seen this wonderful review – thank you for such a perceptive and thoughtful examination of my book. Jan

    • Hello Jan, congratulations on a very successful debut!

      • Thanks so much Lisa. I’m grateful for your support.

  3. I look forward to reading my copy soon-ish.

    • I think you’ll enjoy it, Sue, it’s an amazing way to learn about the history of a city we all love…

  4. Brilliant review congratulations.

  5. Interesting subject and interesting review, Lisa. The question of justice and old hatreds is sadly always pertinent. At least in Italy the political division was not complicated by ethnic or religious differences. I remember staying with an oldish couple in Rome when I was twenty. They had been Mussolini supporters, but they were decent people, very kind to me, and unlike their counterparts in the rest of Europe, they were not anti-Semitic. One day Clara brought out her scrapbook from the war. She had kept newspaper articles up until the Italians swapped allegiance, which to her was a source of great shame. I found the enthusiasm for Mussolini hard enough to swallow, but the scrapbook was startling indeed.

    • I know what you mean. Reading this made me hunt out what I knew of Mussolini because the book says that Churchill admired him, and also that he did some good things for the peasantry. I looked online, but also in HV Morton’s 1964 A Traveller in Italy. I love Morton’s books but he was a real Tory and he made no secret o his admiration for Mussolini and his distaste for how Mussolini met his end was palpable.
      We tend not to know so much about the involvement of the ‘minor states’ in the war…

  6. Lisa, – I have loved everything H V Morton wrote. I agree about his political views, but his history & observations are magical. Diana I was interested in what you said about the Rome couple. It’s complicated. I have met people who were Fascists & people who were partisans and people who were communists and they were mostly just people doing their best in a world turned upside down, in the wake of WWI. Most Italians were not anti-semitic. Most Italians supported Mussolini at the beginning – they needed hope & he seemed to offer it. Later was too late. The character Anna Maria in the book, explains a lot about why people were loyal to him.

    • Absolutely. I collect his books and I loved reading them before we travelled to Spain and Italy as well as of course for our English journeys. I do so wish he’d been to Russia, but of course the politics were wrong for that.
      The character of Anna Maria is sheer genius, I could just see her grumbling away…

  7. I meant to say, I loved your interview with Veny Armanno – Love his work – I launched a couple of his earlier books.

    • It’s very cinematic, isn’t it?

  8. […] I was recently reading The Sweet Hills of Florence by Jan Wallace Dickinson that I had something on my shelves about fascism in Italy, but I […]

  9. […] (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book – I promise I hadn’t read her review when I wrote my introduction, which is […]

  10. As I said on my post I love that we started our posts on the same idea. One issue I didn’t discuss, but that you refer to, is that of the diaries. I loved how both Annabelle and Clara kept diaries, but was sad that Annabelle destroyed hers at the end. So sad for historians when this happens.


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