David Hewson is a new author for me. The Garden of Angels is a combination of historical novel and World War Two thriller, written in a patient, multi-layered style which explores a moment in history through the lives of a small number of people. Hewson makes wartime Venice come alive in all its stench, beauty, cruelty, fear and starvation. It is 1943 and the locals are watching the news, following the Allies’ progress towards Rome, wondering how much longer they must wait to be free once more. Meanwhile the Germans search amongst the locals for partisans, traitors, communists. But most of all they search for Jews. A teenage boy, alone after his parents are killed in a bombing raid, must continue the business of the family firm, jacquard weavers of the most beautiful velvet. He must complete the commission his father won just before he died. He stays within the four walls of his home, whilst on the streets outside people are being killed. Until one day Paulo sees something that makes him determined to do something rather than stand by.
The story hinges on the modern-day relationship between a boy and his grandfather, encapsulated from page one as Nonno Paulo reads a bedtime story to five-year-old Nico. He reads from a true story from a history book and they discuss the nature of truth, the truth of death. Ten years later, in 1999 when Nonno Paulo is dying, he gives to Nico a series of letters telling the truth of his life in Venice in 1943 during the German occupation. No one knows Paulo’s real story.
In 1943, Venice is a closed city, tight-knit, full of secret spaces and places the Germans don’t know. It is both a place for hiding and a place for living under the eye of the Nazis and Black Brigades. Paolo shelters two partisans who are on the run. Brother and sister Vanni and Mika Artom are not hunted solely because they have killed Germans, but because they are Jews. Mika, unable to sit quietly by, finds a local resistance group and agrees to take part in a plot to murder a visiting VIP, Salvatore Bruno, a Jew who is betraying other Jews. Vanni, injured and hardly able to move, helps Paolo and his assistant Chiara to weave.
This is a powerful story that hooks you from the beginning and draws you in. I was still thinking about the book days after finishing it. It is not a regular war thriller though it has all the usual conventions. It is more about how we as humans act under extreme circumstances, what we do to survive, where we draw our red lines, when to stand aside and when to step in, how far we will go to win; surprisingly similar dilemmas for the occupiers and the occupied when all are ultimately ordinary people.
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THE GARDEN OF ANGELS by @david_hewson #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5pi via @SandraDanby