I’ve written in the past about World War II fiction. I especially appreciate how the genre can illuminate elements of the conflict that history books cannot, for want of specificity and seriousness. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more.
I’ve since read quite a bit of World War II non-fiction, but I’ve returned to novels set during the period as well, as they now help flesh out and humanize the history. In Liberation, novelist Joanna Scott takes us to the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, whose inhabitants are caught between the wars great powers. Ostensibly once loyal to Mussolini but then occupied by Germany, Elba is by 1944, as the novel’s title suggests, in the midst of a whirlwind liberation by French forces that included an amalgam of colonial outfits, among them a battalion of Senegalese soldiers. Among the Elbans themselves, the chaotic liberation inspires mixed feelings of relief and fear, with the latter being directed toward the African liberators in particular.
The story is primarily told in flashback through the eyes of a precocious ten-year-old girl Adriana, who spends the first night of the liberation tucked away in a cabinet, out of sight of any marauding soldiers. Adriana’s mother Giulia sums up the turmoil and confusion of occupation and liberation:
Elba had been liberated. Grosseto had been liberated. Rome had been liberated. What did any of this mean? Not what she’d said to her daughter — mai piu, a promise much worse than an outright lie. The Germans were retreating? The occupation was over? What, exactly, had they occupied, besides beds and rooms and lavatories?
Into Giulia’s home, bucolic even in wartime, wanders a Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, 17, who decidedly lacks the temperament for war and fancies himself blessed, “chosen” by God and able to perform minor miracles if he puts his mind to it. Impressionable young Adriana becomes infatuated with Amdu, by his otherness mostly, and he with her for similar reasons. And though some of his countrymen are rampaging through the countryside, Amdu’s intentions remain pure and he resolves to come back and marry Adriana one day. He is a gentle young gentlemen.
Of course, not everyone else in Adriana’s web of relations and family friends is nearly as enamored of Amdu, and the climate, with bullets and bombs still flying overhead, is one mostly of mistrust. Before long Amdu is cast out.
But Liberation isn’t a star-crossed love story – and perhaps this is its main shortcoming. Instead it is recalled in a dreamy reverie by a much older Adriana, now living in New York, as she rides the train into the city. These scenes go into fussy detail about Adriana’s fellow commuters yank the reader from the Elban recollection in a not entirely pleasant way. Similarly, Mario, Adriana’s uncle and the main “villain” of the novel, occasionally assumes the role of narrator and pulls us away from the book’s most engaging characters, Adriana and Amdu. Child and childlike, Adriana and Amdu manage to elevate the book, and Scott crafts a delightful ambiguity for the reader to wade through in the pair’s few scenes together. In broader strokes, she paints an atmospheric picture of one of the war’s minor episodes.