Isabella, one of Italy’s few female architects, is helping to create one of Mussolini’s newest cities, Bellina, which has risen from the Pontine Marshes, a mosquito ridden swampland. While sitting outside a cafe, Isabella is approached by a woman who asks her to watch over her daughter, Rosa, for a moment, Isabella is reluctant but agrees when the woman mentions the name of Isabella’s dead husband. Moments later, Isabella watches in horror as the woman throws herself from the tower Isabella designed. A shocked Isabella takes Rosa home but is forced to turn the girl over to the authorities before she has a chance to find out what Rosa’s mother knew about her husband, Luigi.
The incident brings a lot of painful memories to the surface of the day her husband was killed and Isabella severely wounded. Luigi was one of Mussolini’s infamous Blackshirts, a militia regime who carried out Il Duce’s policies, often with brutal methods. Young and naive, Isabella is caught up in the glamour of Mussolini’s promises and marries Luigi but she is blind to his true nature and mourns his loss when he is shot dead in the street. Ten years later, Isabella has been trying to get on with her life but she has built defensive walls around her heart almost as high as the real buildings she is designing. However, Isabella is determined to help Rosa and is desperate to understand why her husband was killed but no one wants to answer her questions and she soon finds herself under surveillance from the Fascists. Matters become more complicated when Isabella meets a young photographer, Roberto, who stirs emotions within her she believed were long dead.
After being a little disappointed with her previous books, I’m glad to say Kate Furnivall is back on track with her latest offering The Italian Wife. One of the biggest problems I had with Furnivall’s two previous books, especially Shadows on the Nile, was the fact she was trying to weave far too many threads into the same story, making it unnecessarily complicated, but in The Italian Wife the balance is perfect. The story is set in 1930s Italy when Mussolini was in power and his Fascist regime were terrorising the Italian populace into obeying him unquestioningly. I really didn’t know much about this period in Italian history until I read The Villa Triste which made me realise the Italians were pretty much at the mercy of the Fascists, and I certainly had no idea they had their own resistance movement. The Italian Wife is set before the outbreak of the Second World War so it concentrates more on the internal struggle going on within Italy and the growing fear against the Blackshirts.
Furnivall has chosen to set Isabella’s story against the backdrop of the building of the town of Bellina, one of five Mussolini ordered to be built out of the disease ridden Pontine Marshes. While Bellina is a fictional town, the story of how it came into being is a true one and makes for fascinating reading. The author provides an informative afterward which talks about how these towns were built, destroyed by the Allies during the war and then reclaimed once more. The book also goes into detail about how the water in the marshes was drained and the constant battle to keep it from flooding once more. The town of Bellina is still being constructed alongside Isabella’s story, however it’s not long before you realise no matter how beautiful the town appears on the surface, there is something dark and corrupt at its heart.
Both Isabella and Roberto have become disenchanted by Mussolini’s regime but if they question anything, they will be imprisoned or killed, however their desire to help Rosa brings them together in a way neither expect. Isabella’s reawakening is also integral to the main plot as she realises she’s just being going through the motions since her husband’s death and although she does her best to deny her attraction to Roberto, the feelings are too intense. Isabella and Roberto do fall in love in a ridiculously short time but their lives are filled with danger so it is forgivable.
There are a lot of secrets buried below the surface of this town and even the innocent are forced into making life or death decisions to survive and to protect those they hold the dearest. I’ve read a lot of books set in Italy this year, many from different historical periods, and The Italian Wife is definitely one of my favourites. There are a lot descriptive chapters, something Furnivall does so well, but it never becomes too bogged down in detail at the expense of the characters who are vividly brought to life. The tone of the novel is also appropriately balanced, as you experience the same joys and disappointments as Isabella, not to mention the overlying fear hanging over the whole town.