by Joanna Scott
Published by Little, Brown and Company
272 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
" Scott knows the power of willing a tale into existence, reframing fiction to escape the limits of truth," said Helen Eisenbach of Newsday of Joanna Scott's Liberation. I wish I had uncovered and revealed the secret of this small novel's subtle power with a line like that. Using history as a backdrop, Scott has crafted a compelling piece of fiction, told from the points-of-view of an 11-year-old girl and the same woman 60 years on.
It's 1944 on the Italian island of Elba and young Nardi is hiding from the so-called "liberators" at the end of WWII. The rescuers are way worse than the Nazi occupying forces, committing acts of savagery that are forcing the locals to hide indoors and wait out the sporadic battles in the hills. There are whispers of a neighbor's young daughter being raped and murdered, a local man shot and then set ablaze, homes destroyed and domestic animals butchered. When Nardi's own home is invaded, she slips outside and finds herself quickly rescued by Amdu, a young recruit in the liberating forces. However, today he is not part of the forces, but rather hiding from them himself, having witnessed that brutal rape and murder. From a privileged Senegal family, the transposed 17-year-old is hungry, ill and disoriented. He is hiding near Nardi's expansive villa, drawn by the piano music he has heard her playing.
Luckily for everyone involved, the officers follow hot on the heels of their barbarous troop and prevent further damage to the home and its occupants. Nardi's mother, Giulia, is an enlightened, privileged and independent woman who doesn't hesitate to eventually take in the sick African, even at risk to her household and over the objections of Mario, her pompous brother-in-law who effects to evict the young man. Mario has had designs on both Guilia and on the mayor's office for a very long time, but is unsuccessful in both endeavors. Although a constant household visitor since marrying Guilia's sister and later becoming a widower, he is not always suffered gladly by Nardi's independent and haughty mother. Nardi, however, adores him.
Now she and the teenaged soldier develop a relationship that is tentative but strong. Over the course of a few weeks it's hard for Nardi to imagine not having her new friend in her life. Ardu finally leaves to rejoin his troop's ship, now in the process of leaving the harbor, and writes a letter on board to be delivered to Nardi's family, requesting the honor of corresponding with the child.
Unfortunately, although she doesn't know it at the time and awaits further word from him, she will never see her young soldier again. He has been killed on board in an avenging blast from angry citizens. It is only much later, when the letter finally finds its way to the household, that she is able to ascertain what must have happened to her precious soldier.
The story unfolds in a time-honored fashion, with flashbacks from the 71-year-old Nardia, now a grandmother living in New Jersey, to her long ago childhood. Now Mrs. Rundel, she is on a commuter train heading into New York when she suffers a pulmonary embolism. During this affliction her mind returns to her homeland and to her fated meeting with the boy who believed himself to be a modern-day saint. He may have been one, but if so, it was short-lived.
There's a reason flashbacks are used so often in both narrative and film. They enable a dramatic tension, which can resonate between time, points of view, or space, frequently achieving the effective irony that can be created when the reader/viewer knows what the protagonist does not. Because Nardia's memories are of an almost-11-year old, we are able to understand them as adults, thus knowing more than she can. Also, because Scott is writing about a history we know, it's compelling. Flashbacks in less than skilled hands, however, can backfire, as both present and past must be equally riveting. Otherwise, the reader will simply skip to the half that interests her/him most, or lose interest in the work altogether. Both Mrs. Rundel's precarious hold on life in the present, and her past childhood experience in Elba are balanced perfectly so that the reader slips contentedly from one to the other.
Scott lives in New York and has successfully authored seven previous works. With several, she has come close to achieving international recognition, being selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (The Manikin.) as well as for the PEN/Faulkner Award (Make Believe and Tourmaline). Liberation is one of those books I will no doubt find myself revisiting. | October 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.