Edith's War by Andrew Smith
Trade paperback, 380 pages
Axiom Publishing, March 26, 2010
Synopsis from the cover:
Edith's War, is a fictional narrative based on historical fact that tells one woman's heart-wrenching, yet ultimately heart-warming, story of hardship, love, passion, and motherhood during World War II. When Edith Maguire is caught up in the trials and tribulations of her Italian neighbours following Britain's internment policy of 1940, her life appears to be transformed.
Edith's story is interwoven with observations and recollections by her two adult sons, which slowly but surely release hidden memories and reveal long-held secrets. The intricacies of familial relations and the omnipresence of war are brilliantly illuminated by two generations - mother and sons - in this ground-breaking work of fiction.
Typically I have had some issues with most historical fiction, mainly because many novels tend to take some facts and then proceed to play loose with the details. I like the facts, the setting, and the mood to all be as historically accurate as possible and reflect the period without putting a modern spin on it based on our current sensibilities. Edith's War manages to fulfill my requirements beautifully. Andrew Smith did his research (which I researched before I accepted a review copy) and, much to my delight, kept a real sense of time and place throughout Edith's War. This was even more apparent because the chapters flip back and forth through time.
The novel opens in 2002 with Edith's two adult sons, Will and Shamus (61 and 56), in Venice, spending a day together before the arrival of their 83 year old mother, Edith. Alternate chapter are set during WWII, starting in 1940, when Edith Maguire was a young war bride, pregnant and living with her mother-in-law by Liverpool. The chapters with Will and Shamus stand in sharp contrast to the chapters with Edith during the war. Will and Shamus relate to each other like real adult siblings do - they disagree, react to each other in a well defined way, and have long-held roles and resentments, while at the same time they are comfortable with each other and begin dredging up memories of the past. Between the brothers, we are privy to Shamus' inner thoughts and know his inner turmoil, especially coming to terms with the recent death of his long time life partner, Luke, while we have to wait to gain a greater understanding of Will.
Edith's story is more straightforward. We immediately see her developing relationships with her mother-in-law, teenage brother-in-law, Liam, and members of the Baccanello family during WWII. We know about her immediate attraction to Carlos. It is from her friendship and love of the Baccanello family that we view the tragedy of the internment of British Italians and the devastating effect it has on the family and Edith. As we slowly learn about Edith's experiences during the war, we follow the brother's interaction and slowly learn the details of their memories. Although I think most readers are going to guess right away where the story is heading, it is a very satisfying book. Lately I've been trying to not compare books from two different authors, but two books read back to back and basically set during the same time period beg for some comparison. If you want a very quick, light treatment of the internment of the Jews, the biggest trial to be restricted membership to golf courses, don't care about historical accuracy (as much as I do), and need some whimsy, Read Mr. Rosenblum. If you like a more serious, realistic look at internment during WWII, and appreciate an exploration of family dynamics, read Edith's War. Highly Recommended
Many thanks to Andrew Smith (and Ruth Seely) for providing me with a review copy of Edith's War.
Italy: 27-09-2002 08:56
“Ma fai attenzione! Madonna!”
Will Maguire had run slap bang into a burly young man who was letting it be known he considered the collision to be entirely Will’s fault. opening
Shamus wouldn’t have been surprised by an angry explosion from Will. The slightness of his brother’s frame — almost half the size of the Italian’s — had never held him back from confrontation in the past. And the whole brouhaha had been the young man’s fault in the first place. But instead, while clearly unhurt by his fall, Will appeared more confused than angry. He was staring at the man and frowning, as though trying to work out how, and from where, the young Italian had materialized.
“British!” exclaimed the Italian. “From London perhaps? I lived there for two years when I was a student. Very nice.”
To Shamus’s astonishment, Will merely nodded his head and continued to stare at the man. Shamus wondered if perhaps his brother was in shock; normally quite vocal, it wasn’t Will’s style to be so tight-lipped. pg. 10-11
“You’d better sit, if you aren’t already,” Will continued in a bossy, older-brother tone of voice that immediately irritated Shamus. “Edith has decided it’s time she did a little travelling, namely a sojourn in Venice with her darling sons.” pg. 15
“Well let’s face it, since Luke died, you have no reason to go home, do you?” asked Will. “Don’t you get lonely in that empty pile of bricks, curled up in the fetal position with your thumb in your mouth?”
Shamus said nothing.
“Look,” said Will. The change in the timbre of his voice was a signal of a halt in his harangue. A huskiness that, despite the imperfect phone connection, Shamus recognized — remembered — as the white flag of a temporary ceasefire. “For some reason unknown to man or beast, this trip seems to matter to Edith. I’d like you and me to do this together, that’s all,” concluded Will. pg. 17
It wasn’t the bloodshed that sickened Edith; she’d seen worse brawls. What repulsed her was the expression of sheer hatred that had transformed Liam’s normally placid, boyish features into a grotesque agglomeration of convulsive muscle and quivering flesh.
“You’re a bunch of Nazi wops,” he’d screamed. “Why don’t you clear off back to Italy before we lock you all up.”
Liam was standing nose to nose with Domenico Baccanello, the youngest son of the Italian family who lived in the bungalow next door. He gripped the front of Domenico’s shirt so tightly his knuckles were white with tension. pg. 21
“Let me see the paper,” said Edith. Instead of handing it to her, Liam held up the newspaper with his free hand and peered at it with his good eye. He quoted line by line in an exaggeratedly dramatic voice:
There is a stinking wind from the Mediterranean which bodes no good,
Yet we still tolerate Mussolini’s henchmen in this country!
The government of Italy has thousands of loyal followers here,
Italians by birth, Fascists by breeding. pg. 25
“Well I think we all deserve a cup of tea,” declared Mrs. Maguire two hours later. She took a final admiring glance at the transformed shed with its hen run securely enclosed in gleaming chicken wire. Carlo had carved out a couple of openings at the base of the shed wall, inside the run, for the hens to go in and out. Edith had planted sprouting potatoes and vegetable seedlings — Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and lettuce — in the bed that Mrs. Maguire had prepared to one side of the front lawn. Liam had disappeared into the house the minute the last section of chicken wire had been secured. Carlo retrieved his jacket from the window ledge and swung it over one shoulder. pg. 28-29
Italy: 27-09-2002 09:53
"I thought it was a bloody gunshot. It's weird how you never think you're particularly affected by news reports, but then they're the first thing you think of when something like that happens. Terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda. They explode into your consciousness from some hidden recess of your brain you didn't know you had." pg. 41-42
...Anna clearly thought it more effective to shout loudly in Italian. But then she switched to an anguished English as she called desperately to Mrs. Maguire, "My friend, come quickly. They're taking Gianni and the boys. Come help us, please." pg. 46
"Our only crime is our Italian roots," Anna eventually said, dropping her hands to her sides. pg. 49