In this quixotic novel of friendship, memory, and love, author Joanna Scott portrays life on the small Italian Island of Elba toward the end of World War
II, just as the Allies are about to liberate its inhabitants. The battle for freedom is indeed intense: thousands of
Allied soldiers are scouring the island for the enemy, the defiant Germans holed up in their concrete redoubts, the ports vulnerable and prone to attack, the villages and small towns posted with snipers willing to indiscriminately shoot friend and foe.
The adventuresome ten-year-old Adriana Nardi just hopes that she'll survive the first wave of
Allied attack. An unwilling participant, she spends the first night hiding in a cabinet beside the kitchen sink on tenterhooks, wondering whether she will be able escape the ferocious
Allied bombing of the Island. Adriana and her mother, Giulia Nardi, have largely escaped the horrors of the war, living in La Chiatta, their insular walled estate, buying their neutrality with the bounty of their gardens and the black-market trade with the military.
One afternoon, while walking in the olive groves, Adriana spies the disparate figure of black man tumbling over a wall and onto the grass. Her first impulse is to cheer for him whatever he has done. Later, when she meets the sensitive young Senegalese soldier Amdu Diop, she
is initially wary, yet she understands that he is just solitary soldier who has fled the fighting, hoping to find shelter and comfort on the Nardi estate.
A young man with "noble aspirations and swift legs," Amdu is a kindly, deeply
spiritual man gone AWOL because he doesn't want to kill. In Adriana he sees a kindred soul. Adriana comforts the soldier through music, and Amdu entrances Adriana by showing her mystical tricks. Their friendship blossoms; for Adriana there's something quite familiar about him, not just
in the manner of a brother or even a twin, but "a mixed-up version of herself, related to her in spirit if not in blood."
When Giulia and Mario, her brother-in-law discover the runaway solder within the confines of La Chiatta, they are faced with the dangers of caring for an injured African soldier while the battles continue; the Germans are turning savage, raping and killing locals, the unforgiving French captains are out searching for absent troops. There's a fine line between occupation and collaboration; Amdu may be a well educated, and well-mannered boy, who has no weapon and is weak from his ordeal, but his presence in the compound spells trouble.
Scott's characters are strong, sensitive, and resilient, mindful of these horrors of war, wary of helping strangers, even hesitant to align themselves with those who are fighting to end the war; helping a young man in crisis will come at a price. Having endured the worst of the chaos, the Nardis are survivors, aware that innocent civilians who, for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, are stripped and flogged to a bloody pulp by soldiers who are desperate, wild and vengeful.
Full of stunning imagery, Scott has written an ambitious story of courage and survival. Nadia and Amdu discover they are very different, yet they want the same things: to survive the war and to be blessed with a good long life. In a time when you have to choose
- either you believe everything or nothing - their chance meeting with each other signifies the spiritual language of compassion and understanding, perhaps even the recognition of love.